Does nationality really matter?

Incoming International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and World Bank leader Robert Zoellick. Photo by: Remy Steinegger and Andy Mettler | World Economic Forum | CC BY-SA

Lately, we’ve heard a lot about “country ownership” – a development buzzword. Countries should be driving their own development, donors agree. Put them in charge of international funding and funnel aid through country systems – that’s how you increase aid effectiveness and truly engage aid recipients.

If a post-conflict country like Liberia can manage its own multidonor trust fund, is there anything developing world leaders can’t do?

Lead the International Monetary Fund, apparently. And, most likely, the World Bank – at least in the foreseeable future.

In the past few days, three top U.N. officials were elected: South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon got a second term as U.N. secretary-general. Jose Graziano da Silva of Brazil will head the Food and Agriculture Organization. And Christine Lagarde will become the first female IMF chief.

Lagarde was the front-runner long before Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned from the post May 18. She’s got the chops: As French finance minister, Lagarde has negotiated bailouts and kept government running from Ireland to Greece.

But then there’s this unwritten rule: The top IMF slot goes to a European, while the World Bank chief is U.S. American. That’s been true with all 10 IMF leaders and all 11 bank presidents (James Wolfensohn also held Australian citizenship).

Will it ever change?

Economic growth in the developing world has been extraordinary. Countries in transition are, well, turning into donors. The Global South’s voting share within the U.N. system has increased. And these countries are eager to lead.

Lagarde’s choice comes despite perhaps the largest-ever push to elect a candidate from Latin America, Asia or Africa. Her main challenger was Mexico’s Agustin Carstens; others were vetted, including a Chinese national.

Over the past few weeks, rumors emerged that the United States might accept a non-European candidate for IMF even if that meant losing the World Bank presidency. In the end, that didn’t happen.

Does it really matter where a top aid official – in the U.N. system or elsewhere – was born? Should it?

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.