World Bank wackiness explains odd U.S. choice

By Rob Cox
April 9, 2012

By Rob Cox

This column appears in the April 9 issue of Newsweek. The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

If the competition to become the World Bank’s next president were a normal process, Jim Yong Kim wouldn’t stand a chance. The Dartmouth College president lacks two of the traditional qualifications for running an international lending body: financial savvy and diplomatic experience. But the race to lead the World Bank is everything but ordinary – particularly this time.

Americans have always helmed the bank, which doled out some $57 billion in loans and grants to poor and middle-income countries last year alone. Except for a congressman (Barber Conable) and a Ford Motor boss (Robert McNamara), all 11 chiefs hailed from Wall Street firms like Lazard Freres, First Boston and Chase Bank. Even outgoing president Robert Zoellick spent some time on the payroll of Goldman Sachs.

Not so the Korean-born physician Kim. At 52, he has spent the past three years in bucolic Hanover, New Hampshire, where his biggest diplomatic challenge appears to have been quelling -with mixed success, according to a recent Rolling Stone exposé -a fondness among its fraternities for painting their pledges in puke and even forcing them to eat it in omelets. But there’s logic to the Obama administration’s choice for the job.

Though it was decreed at the 1944 Bretton Woods confab that the United States would name the bank’s president, it has 186 other stakeholders. And for the first time ever, they’re making their voices heard. When the World Bank board meets this week in Washington, it will have two other candidates to interview: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and José Antonio Ocampo, the former finance ministers of Nigeria and Colombia, respectively.

In another contest, their backgrounds would give them an edge. But here’s why Kim may be an inspired choice: if poverty’s insidious bedfellow is disease, it knows few enemies like Kim. He has a superhero’s resume of fighting the dark forces of illness. Kim was a co-founder of Partners in Health, which is seeking to eradicate infectious diseases like tuberculosis in the poorest nations on the planet. He chaired the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In 2003, he moved to the World Health Organization and directed its efforts in fighting HIV and AIDS.

True, none of this has anything to do with making loans. But that’s sort of the point. Kim’s career has focused on the outcomes of development rather than the process. At a moment when American control of the bank is being challenged by the primary recipients of its largess, that’s a critical distinction.

Kim may not gain the consensus of all 25 World Bank directors when he sits down with them on Wednesday. BRIC nations are keen to flex their influence – last month in New Delhi they even discussed creating their own version of a World Bank. But putting a development specialist in charge for the first time would certainly beat replicating past precedent. Imagine President Obama naming Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein to lead a global effort to eliminate poverty.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

A significant factor to the Obama administration is that Kim was not a white man.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

It is clearly time for the USA to release its post WWII lock on the World Bank, and also time to divert the spending, or most of it, to its own citizens.

We are becoming a giant version of Monaco, with a small, global ruling class of billionaires and a cast of personal service flunkies. The two groups have almost nothing in common. And the split clearly reflects the failure of whatever our once Constitutional Republic has become. Time for a restart that will give the majority of the American People a Government that cares about what happens to them and to their offspring rather than a “winner take all” system where the winner can buy the win, cash or credit, no matter who they “care” about.

If the ruling elite continues to neglect the country, it will find itself without one.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Better an honest citizen than another crooked Bankster any day. I call this a WIN.

Posted by Jmaximus | Report as abusive