May the Best Woman Win at the World Bank

February 04, 2019

I’ve borrowed my title from this opinion piece in the New York Times about how the United States needs a woman as the next president. Like the US, the World Bank needs its next president to save it—in this case from a slide into irrelevance and obscurity if this century’s new global challenges are not addressed head on. A woman would bring fresh air and a new perspective to an institution that is still stuck in a rut. A woman would bring a new kind of leadership. She would care about the institution (as women seem to do) more than her own ambitions, and give it a new birth in this century, in a way another man might not.  

Competition is a good thing

The problem at the World Bank is that in finding the best person to lead it, there is not much competition. For an institution full of economists who honor competitive forces in market economies, this may seem odd. Behind the oddity is a deal made at the World Bank’s founding in 1944 (no doubt in a smoke-filled room without any woman present): the Europeans will support the American candidate to head the World Bank, and the Americans will support the European candidate to head the International Monetary Fund.

That was in the middle of the twentieth century. Now it’s the twenty-first century. In 2012, the Europeans nominated Christine Lagarde to head the IMF after the debacle of its male then-head being arrested in New York City for sexual assault. Nominating a woman in that moment was smart. On her merits (and she was the European candidate and so got automatic US support), she beat out an excellent Mexican male nominee.

Competition is a good thing. It ensures that among good candidates, merit will matter. Lack of competition or any kind of contestation signals a problem: monopoly power, some insider deal. Up to now, even the United States’ stranglehold on the presidency of the World Bank has been less competitive than it could be, since the US nominee has always been seen as either a Democrat or a Republican, depending on the man in the White House.

The more competition the better

The pool of candidates is bigger and more competitive when men from any country can be nominated and hope to win; that happened in 2012 when Jose Antonio Ocampo was nominated by Colombia. It is bigger still when a woman from any country can be nominated and hope to win; in 2012 South Africa nominated a Nigerian, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On paper, both these candidates looked far more qualified than the winner nominated by the US: Jim Yong Kim. Kim’s win reflected the insider deal.

Added to any male candidates, American or not, one or more female candidates would ensure healthy competition—particularly if they come from a developing country (in the end, the key clients for World Bank services).

Some female candidates

Here are three outstanding female candidates—each originally from a developing country—that have been mentioned in the media as candidates for the job. Each would make sense as the United States’ nominee: each holds views fully aligned with the bipartisan consensus in the United States on the benefits of private sector-driven market economies and of politically independent democratic sovereigns, and each has spent many years in the US. And each meets the criteria for the next president set out here, including a track record of leadership and management experience at the international level, top diplomatic and communication skills, commitment to multilateral cooperation, and the understanding of and demonstrated commitment to the World Bank’s development mission. They are Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia, Indra Nooyi of India; and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria (a candidate in 2012 when Kim was elected).

Since any member country can nominate anyone—their own compatriot or not—I urge all member countries to consider these candidates and any others that others, including our readers, might suggest.

The starting date for country members to nominate a candidate is February 8. As in a horse race, it’s best to get out of the gate quickly—otherwise the US candidate’s historic advantage can eclipse what ought to be an open, merit-based, competitive process.

May the best woman win.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank