The presidency of the World Bank, the world's largest development bank, has traditionally been the choice of the president of the United States and has gone to an American. However, now that Robert McNamara has announced his retirement, the time may be ripe to make a break with tradition.

Some observers advocate a bold leap forward and the installation of a Third World candidate as chief executive of the World Bank.

Among the choices is Abdlatif Hamad, the director of the Kuwait Development Bank. He is an able and shrewd financial administrator who has attempted to use his influence to push the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries into a significant role as aid doners.

Or how about Shridath Ramphal of Guyana, secretary general of the highly sophisticated politician who played a valuable role in organizing the Commenwealth nations to lean on Margaret Thatcher's government at critical points in the Rhodesian negotiations. He is also credited, along with former British prime minister Edward Health, with having rescued the Brandt Commission from falling apart last year when its staff was hopelessly split and its leader Willy Brandt appeared to have lost his hold on the commission, which had been charged with making recommendations for closing the gap between rich and poor nations.

But this kind of discussion is reminiscent of the last papal conclave, when consideration was given to a Third World pope. It strikes a certain resonance. After all, the Third World has a significant constituency. I am told that Karol Wojtyla -- now Pope John Paul II voted for the Brazilian Cardinal Aloisid Lorsheider during the papal balloting. But it would be too sharp a break from tradition for it to happen today. Next time, perhaps.

Well then -- if a polish pope, why not a West European, Canadian or Japanese World Bank Chief? The Japanese have no major candidate. The Canadians have only one, Maurice Strong, the industrialist and banker.

On the European front, many would like to see Wilfried Guth, head of the West German Deutsche Bank, get the nod. Informed sources doubt his willingness, however. He refused the offer to become head of the Bundes-bank, which in many ways is a more attractive position these days than head of the World Bank.

One person much talked about is Health. Health lost the British premiership after calling a premature election in order he hoped, to squash a miners' strike. Today he is more highly regarded in Britain than he was while in office. He is seen as a man of great wisdom, energy and foresight. But the antipathy between him and Prime Minister Thatcher reduces his effectiveness. His effort to persuade the recent Venice summit of industrialized nations to back the recommendations of the Brandt Commission would have been more successful if Thatcher had not squashed them.

Heath, in fact, has been by far the most effective member of the Brandt Commission. In a series of public interventions, he has refined the point that needs to be made.

The world, he argues, because of its massive economic and political problems, is at a juncture when the diyers interests of three of its four economic blocs -- the West, Opec and the Third World -- can be molded into a mutually sustaining whole. Recently he wrote, "The OPEC countries will be looking for a more secure means of placing their surpluses with some expectation of getting a higher rate of return than the present rate of inflation. If we in the North can contrive such a system, we could expect to have an assurance for the security of our oil supplies . . . (and) a clear indication of the future level of oil prices." In return, he argued, the West would also agree to step up its aid to the Third World and to reform the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund so that they can lend much more.

Health, however, has let it be known that, if given the choice, he'd rather succeed Joseph Luns as secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty organization.

This brings the debate back to an American candidate. Elliot Richardson, who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, is one possibility. Peter Peterson, a former secretary of commerce and a Brandt Commission member, is another. Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, is a third.

At a July meeting of the North-South Roundtable at the University of Sussex, attended by senior bankers, politicians, economists an development experts, another name was suggested -- that of Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Professor Robert Triffin, the long-standing proponent of monetary reform and a designer of the European Monetary System; James Grant, executive director of UNICEF; and Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, the former managing director of the IMF, were among those favorable to the idea.

Young's two years on the House Banking Committee, when he was a congressman, gave him a familiarity with the issues that the deployed at the Brighton meeting with great effectiveness. Young, who led a one-man teach-in on Middle East issues in the month after his resignation from the U.N. post, is also regarded as an effective political salesman, an asset the aid lobby badly needs.

He is one of the few Americans who has a constituency among the OPEC nations and could perhaps translate this into a favorable World Bank credit rating. More than that, he might be able to persuade them to respond to the Brandt-Health deal rather than build up their own alternative world bank, an idea now much talked about. There have been recent moves by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to freeze loans to the World Bank unless the Palestine Liberation Organization gets observer status at Bank-IMF meetings.

Young is also popular among the Third World countries, which have vast commodities available for exportation.

There have been informal consultations with the European and Third World Executive directors of the World Bank, asking their opinion of Young. The third World representatives were overwhelmingly for him. The Europeans were reserved and doubtful, with other candidates higher on their list. Young is regarded in some European quarters as a man who shoots from the hip and, on occasion, shoots himself in the foot. Nevertheless, they all apparently said that if President Carter chose to nominate Young, they would not oppose his appointment.

The World Bank job is still regarded as the prerogative of the president of the United States. Carter no doubt feels that in a closely fought election he will need every vote he can get. Young has brought him support before. Giving him this job, which Young wants, could encourage the black and liberal turnout that would give Carter a second term.