Merit and nationality in multilateral leadership

By David Bosco

The process for selecting the next United Nations Secretary General has received plenty of attention worldwide, much of it focused on whether a woman will be selected for the first time. The leadership selection process at the World Bank has gotten less press, and with good reason: its members decided to short-circuit the process by simply renewing the term of current president, American Jim Yong Kim. Prominent Bank-watchers have responded angrily. Via the Financial Times:

[C]ritics warn that both Mr Kim and the World Bank’s legitimacy risk being further damaged by the US’s decision to speed through the Korean-born American’s reappointment before President Barack Obama leaves office early next year. They also argue that the lack of other candidates is a symptom of how many big emerging economies such as China are turning away from the Washington-based lender to focus on their own new institutions.

“As a US citizen I am really chagrined by this process. The US, I think, is putting the long-term relevance, effectiveness and legitimacy of the World Bank at risk, which is not a good thing,” said Nancy Birdsall, a former senior bank official who leads the Center for Global Development, a think-tank.

It’s evident that plenty of the anger at the quick Kim reappointment derives from specific dissatisfaction with his tenure. But the discontent is also part of a much broader debate about how to select leaders for major multilateral organizations. Different organizations have different procedures, but several follow unwritten customs about which countries’ nationals get which posts. The head of the International Monetary Fund is always from Europe; the International Court of Justice always has judges from each of the permanent five countries; the UN Secretary General never comes from the P5.

And in the case of the World Bank, the United States has always had the privilege of selecting the president. Birdsall’s colleague, Michael Clemens, argues cogently that the time has come to end that tradition. He correctly notes the changed U.S. role and shifting economic realities that make U.S. privilege outdated. But Clemens also specifically links the search for the most qualified candidate to the end of nationality restrictions:

Selecting the World Bank’s president on merit alone would revitalize development policy and strengthen the Bank as an institution. It would tap a pool of highly qualified development experts and managers around the world, people who are full of ideas on how to take the Bank in new and productive directions.

The highly qualified Nigerian candidate Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for example, has said that she would make youth employment her top priority as World Bank president. Given the links between youth unemployment and violence, this focus would not only respond to the priorities of developing countries, but also be in the interest of the U.S.

Criticism of the Bank’s practice of putting citizenship ahead of merit in the selection of a president has been constant over the years. In 1981, eminent Indian economist S.L.N. Simha wrote, “There is no justification at all for continuing the convention of having a U.S. citizen as the Bank’s president. Let this job go to suitable persons in other countries.”

In one sense, Clemens is obviously correct: a geographically unrestricted search would create the largest pool of candidates and should allow for an increase in merit (however that is defined). But I think the connection between merit and nationality restrictions is much more complicated than Clemens suggests.

We actually have experience with relatively unrestricted multilateral searches, and nothing about them suggests that merit rules the day. The current and past UN Secretary General selection processes are instructive (these searches are not entirely unbound; as indicated, there is a tradition against P5 nationals being considered). Broad geographic selection processes create fertile ground for horse trading. In the absence of some tradition about whose nationals occupy a position, states or regions will quickly develop norms on whose “turn” it is to occupy it. And in these arguments, merit usually loses out to considerations of national or regional equity. There’s strong evidence then that removing nationality restrictions doesn’t replace politics with merit, it simply changes the politics.

None of this is an argument in favor of customary national “ownership” of multilateral posts. But it it should be apparent that seeking merit in multilateral leadership selection is about much more than doing away with geographical limitations. And in some circumstances, policing merit might actually be easier when the geographic pool is restricted. In any case, I would argue that geographical limitations are much more problematic from an institutional legitimacy perspective than as the wellspring of unqualified leaders.



About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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