The World Bank's Quota System for Leaders

Source: Getty
Op-Ed Washington Post
The selection process for the World Bank's top job is far from competitive, but focusing on the presidency obscures the extent to which other high-level positions at both the Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also quota-driven.
Related Media and Tools

The scandal over the repellent way the World Bank president is appointed has obscured an equally scandalous situation: the appointment process of the rest of the senior managers at the bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They too are selected through opaque, quota-driven negotiations that are a far cry from the meritocracy these two institutions claim to value and preach to others.

When the World Bank needs a new president — and this time the Obama administration is expected to name its candidate Friday — the charade goes like this: The public is told that the selection process will be “open, transparent and merit-based.” Then, the White House announces a name — how, we do not know — and the anointed American goes through pretend job interviews with the bank’s board of directors, who pretend to make a decision about which, in fact, they have no say. The handpicked American gets the job.

The indignant denunciations of this process — that it reeks of patronage and colonialism — obscure an interesting question: Why do developing countries allow this? For that matter, why do rich countries whose citizens are not considered, such as Canada and Japan, tolerate it?

We know why Europe accepts it: The same charade is played at the IMF, starring a European — the only “acceptable” origin for the top job. In last year’s non-contest to lead the IMF, Agustin Carstens, the highly respected chief of Mexico’s central bank, barely got a nod of support from developing countries; the French candidate, Christine Lagarde, was a shoo-in (and the same nationality as her predecessor as managing director).

There are three reasons behind the developing countries’ surprising coyness. The first is that the United States is the World Bank’s largest single shareholder. This makes it hard to dislodge and underscores the second reason: The World Bank’s top job is not worth a fight with the superpower, certainly not one that challengers are so likely to lose.

To win such a fight would require assembling a vast international coalition, especially among poor countries. And what do poor nations have in common? Their poverty — and not much else. Consider the six largest emerging markets: China and India are geopolitical rivals; Mexico and Brazil compete for regional leadership (Brazil preferred Lagarde, the French candidate, over the Mexican to lead the IMF); and Russia and Indonesia cannot be more different. Do these countries want to upset the United States so as to favor a rival candidate from their motley group? No.

The third reason — rarely mentioned but powerful — for the longevity of the U.S. and European monopolies over these appointments is that they are stealthily supported by another, less noticed cartel: the few countries that “own” a quota of the rest of the top jobs at the World Bank and the IMF.

Not only are these institutions’ leaders selected in uncompetitive ways, but many powerful positions — extending two or three levels below the top job — are similarly allocated. It boils down to a quota system in which merit is only one, and often not the main, criterion. Under this unwritten but long-established convention, for example, the No. 2 at the IMF is always an American, while two other powerful deputies are from, respectively, a developing and an advanced country. China now holds a fourth such top-ranked position. The head of the powerful fiscal affairs department goes to an Italian. And so on.

At the World Bank, the appointment cartel is equally powerful: Traditionally, Asia, Africa and Europe each get to select one managing director. The head of the International Financial Corp. is European, and the head of the Multilateral Insurance Guarantee Agency is always Japanese. The vice president slots are also carefully allocated. In numerous instances, candidates from other countries need not apply.

No well-run global company selects its senior management this way. These handicaps are ironic, and sad, because the World Bank and the IMF have significant missions in this rapidly globalizing world. Their managers’ decisions affect the livelihoods of millions. Little wonder there is no determined effort to dismantle the spoils system: Those who might challenge the appointments cartel may be next in line for a plum job.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post

End of document

About the International Economics Program

The Carnegie International Economics Program monitors and analyzes short- and long-term trends in the global economy, including macroeconomic developments, trade, commodities, and capital flows, drawing out their policy implications. The current focus of the program is the global financial crisis and its related policy issues. The program also examines the ramifications of the rising weight of developing countries in the global economy among other areas of research.


Comments (1)

  • Gary
    Dear Sir,
    I'm not sure it is proper to compare WB/IMF to a "global company" or any business. Surely, one would not appoint a health care expert to lead a real bank, partiuclary it it were a world bank. So, the first question should what these entities are. I'm afraid, for what these organizations really are, the selection (or rather appointment) process you so nicely described, might be appropriate.
    I enjoyed reading the article very much. Thank you.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.