Have you ever wondered why the president of the World Bank always seems to be an American? Remarkably, since its foundation in 1946, every single World Bank head has been a US citizen. How about the International Monetary Fund (IMF)? Since 1946, all eleven Managing Directors of that institution have been European – five of those coming from France including four of the last six.
The World Food Programme? The last five Executive Directors have been American. The UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations? The last five heads have been French. What about the world’s most senior humanitarian, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator? The last three (soon to be four) have been British. And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees? Since the 1970s they have all come from Europe, the US or Japan.
These are the institutions that are meant to oversee the world’s approach to global development and response to crises. Many of them, including the ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions of the World Bank and IMF, were set up in the aftermath of World War II as the foundation of a stable and prosperous new world order. But they have long been criticised as out of date and out of touch – an extension of twentieth century political architecture and Western ideology. Looking at the evidence before us, it is hard to disagree.
No doubt that the leaders involved have the best of intentions and impeccable qualifications. And life is, of course, not fair – it would be unrealistic to expect a kind of perfect global meritocracy. But the facts on the leadership of these institutions are stark. The top jobs have seemingly been dished out to members of established nations in what continues to look like a neo-colonial carve-up.
Surely it is time we moved beyond this antiquated approach. Institutions that remain remote, top-down and uniform, are less equipped to understand and respond to the needs people have, as well as the solutions they represent, and lack of diversity in perspective and approach stifles flexibility and innovation – both of which are essential in times of fast-paced change. If all leaders are drawn from a similar background, they are less likely to have new ideas or to improve upon the established order.
We live in an increasingly multi-polar world. Geopolitical relationships are shifting, new powers are rising and old ones are being rocked by political earthquakes – embodied most recently in the West by the election of President Trump, Brexit and a rise in populist politics and nativist sentiment. More than ever before, at this time of great flux and fluidity, it is clear we need to reform our global system to make it fit for our times.
And what times they are. The UN Refugee Agency has just released its latest figures for worldwide displacement, which now stand at over 65 million people, with the average length of displacement at 22 years – the span of a generation. Over 21 million of these displaced are refugees, of whom more than 80% receive sanctuary in developing countries.
While wholesale reform of the international development and humanitarian system is such a substantial challenge that it may appear daunting, major reforms are needed. We must start somewhere, and why not the leadership of some of the key institutions that are at the forefront of building our more stable and prosperous world?
China is now far and away the largest investor in Africa, as well as its largest trade partner and third largest bilateral donor (after the US and UAE). China is also underway with a range of massive infrastructure projects within its One Belt One Road initiative, which when rolled out will involve 68 nations and touch more than 4 billion people, dwarfing the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II. Surely it’s time to encourage and endorse leadership from China into these international institutions, harnessing new ideas and expertise, along with alternative perspectives to the West.
In a recent speech on ‘shared societies’ UK Prime Minister Theresa May outlined an ambition to tackle injustice based on support for communities, local networks and social cohesion. She also highlighted the need to build a meritocracy in which your birthplace does not determine your achievement.
As she seeks a global role for a post-Brexit Britain – a ‘Global Britain’ – the Prime Minister would do well to apply these principles to our international actions. That should include supporting increased diversity of leadership in global institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank. All too often the tendency is to oversimplify through ‘north - south’ or ‘south - south’ narratives, which overlook the complex and interconnected world in which we all live.
International NGOs must not be overlooked either. Although many may indeed be more diverse in their leadership than most global institutions, we do not have nearly enough senior leaders from the developing world or from crisis-affected communities.
There are already some early signs of improvement. For example, the World Health Organisation will, from July 1, be led for the first time by an Ethiopian. This is progress, but much more needs to be done. The exclusion of people from outside the established club from holding global leadership positions is not a new problem, but if we are serious about improving global governance and transparency – and tackling the inequity of opportunity that is fuelling so much global turmoil and instability – we can no longer just talk the talk of inclusion. We need to walk the walk too.