Should a lawyer be running the IMF?

The analyses of Christine Lagarde’s selection as IMF chief have tended to focus on two principal attributes: nationality and gender. Both are important. But mostly left aside has been her educational and professional background. Unlike her recent predecessors, Lagarde is a lawyer rather than an economist. Dominique Strauss-Kahn had taught economics at the University of ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

The analyses of Christine Lagarde's selection as IMF chief have tended to focus on two principal attributes: nationality and gender. Both are important. But mostly left aside has been her educational and professional background. Unlike her recent predecessors, Lagarde is a lawyer rather than an economist. Dominique Strauss-Kahn had taught economics at the University of Paris. Rodrigo de Rato and Horst Kohler were also Ph.D. economists (though de Rato did also have a law degree). A correspondent with IMF experience emailed in with this take on the issue:

The analyses of Christine Lagarde’s selection as IMF chief have tended to focus on two principal attributes: nationality and gender. Both are important. But mostly left aside has been her educational and professional background. Unlike her recent predecessors, Lagarde is a lawyer rather than an economist. Dominique Strauss-Kahn had taught economics at the University of Paris. Rodrigo de Rato and Horst Kohler were also Ph.D. economists (though de Rato did also have a law degree). A correspondent with IMF experience emailed in with this take on the issue:

The bread-and-butter work of the Fund is macroeconomics, so this may at first seem an odd choice. But in truth, first, [Lagarde], has spent years as a Finance Minister and will know the substance of the job. Second, the position of Fund MD has always had a political component, both in terms of who is selected and what that figure is expected to do as the organization’s leader. Like so many other political and leadership positions in Washington, being a lawyer may be a distinct advantage. Finally, the Fund is very much a "rule-of-law" organization that strictly respects its legal framework; having a lawyer at the top may in that way also be a more natural fit than it first appears.

Lagarde’s high-profile legal experience likely also bolsters her credentials as a negotiator and deal-maker, qualities that will be essential in the coming months.

But Lagarde takes over an institution that in some respects operates as one of the world’s largest macroeconomics think tanks. The IMF pumps out dozens of working papers and analyses every year. A recent evaluation concluded that while some of the fund’s work is highly rigorous and even pathbreaking, much of it towed the institutional line and was of little relevance to national decision-makers. Lagarde, who has no experience in research economics, therefore arrives at a moment when the fund is re-examining the value of its own contributions.

In the wake of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, much has been written about the IMF’s culture as regards gender and power. As the first female managing director, Lagarde will no doubt influence that. But she may also change the institution’s research culture by insisting that its work be leaner, less constrained, and more relevant.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

Tags: IMF, Law

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