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PICKING A WORLD MONEY MAN

While International Monetary Fund members debate the U.S. proposal for restructuring the institution's global mission, there can be no debating the IMF's impact.

That's why there also should be little debate about another reform proposal: opening up the process by which the 182-member organization picks its next leader.

The jockeying already is under way to replace Michel Camdessus, the managing director who has announced that he is stepping down in February. But in typical IMF fashion, that horse-trading to line up votes is going on out of the view of the public that will be affected by whatever new course the IMF adopts.

In fact, despite the "international" in its title, tradition has held that the IMF limit its search for a leader to the European continent in a kind of unofficial division of power in which Europe gets the IMF seat while an American gets to lead the World Bank.

That much, at least, might be breaking down this year as Japan talks about pushing its own candidate. That's a start in opening up the game.

But what really needs to happen is a transparent, democratic process in which candidates go before the IMF board in public and outline for the world their visions of what the organization should be doing and how it should be doing it. Then member nations should vote in public and be accountable for the results.

Yet if the past is a guide, complains Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, the deal will be done in a back room "and then a billion or so people who live under these programs would be expected to be very happy with it."

Changing that secretive process is critical to rebuilding public confidence in an institution ridiculed by some economists for its handling of recent debt crises and loathed by the Republican-led Congress, which held up $18 billion in U.S. funding for several months last year even as the fund was doling out $100 billion to bolster vulnerable currency reserves.

Critics -- and there are many -- complain that the IMF intervenes too late and attaches austerity conditions that end up punishing the poor to protect rich donors.

How the IMF should respond to such criticism -- as well as to reform proposals from Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to scale back its lending operation -- is a subject that those who would head the agency should address openly so that their ideas can be assessed by residents in all 182 member countries.

The fact that the IMF's 24-member governing board apportions power on a weighted basis, based on a nation's economic clout, means there is virtually no chance that someone from the developing world will be tapped.

But that doesn't mean the IMF can't open the process to insure that, even if the selection is limited to candidates from the richest nations, the best one is picked. After all, most of those nations operate as open democracies. The world financial institution they jointly control should be no less open.

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