A gentleman’s agreement dating to just after World War II holds that the United States chooses the head of the World Bank, and chooses an American. (Europe chooses the head of its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, and chooses a European.) This arrangement made good sense at first: Back in the Cold War era, the United States wanted to help spur capitalist development in poor countries and provided the bulk of the bank’s financing to make that happen.
Annie Lowrey: The Ivanka fund
But the gentleman’s agreement is no longer justifiable. Washington is a major funder of the bank, but not a dominant funder. And it damages the institution to limit the talent pool to Americans. Leaders from a number of lower- and middle-income countries have argued forcefully that the search process should be truly meritocratic by being truly open, that they deserve a bigger say at the institution, and that the current management structure is outdated and imperialistic.
Democrats and Republicans in Washington, however, are united in their desire to keep things as they are. For them, heading the institution is an important lever of global power and, as a practical matter, ensures that American dollars keep flowing to the bank. “The Americans need to keep the World Bank presidency. It’s powerful, it’s influential, and it’s meaningful,” said Daniel Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It works within a larger global system of distributed power,” he added, pointing to European control of the IMF and Japanese control of the Asian Development Bank.
Perhaps, but that is no argument for Malpass. Contrast his résumé with that of, say, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria and longtime World Bank executive, who lobbied for the job when it came up during the Obama administration. Unlike her—or any number of other reasonable candidates—Malpass is not a development expert, nor has he ever managed an international financial institution, nor does he have deep relationships with the governments of lower-income countries where the bank does much of its work. His main achievement is that he was the chief economist at Bear Stearns, the investment bank that failed in 2008 under the weight of its subprime lending.
Nor does Malpass represent a strong or reassuring policy vision for the world’s most important anti-poverty institution. “I care deeply about the mission and about breaking out of poverty and achieving growth, and I am sure the World Bank can succeed,” Malpass assured reporters last week, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. But in congressional testimony, he said institutions such as the bank are “not very efficient” and are “often corrupt in their lending practices, and they don’t get the benefit to the actual people in the countries.” He has argued that the institution should do less and be less, and he looks likely to nudge it to do less and be less.