Jim Kim!

March 23, 2012
Jim Yong Kim, the co-founder of Partners in Health and the current president of Dartmouth University.

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So that was unexpected: the next president of the World Bank is almost certain to be Jim Yong Kim, the co-founder of Partners in Health and the current president of Dartmouth University College.

The news of Kim’s nomination has gone down very well among the punditocracy, and Jeff Sachs already seems to have withdrawn his candidacy in Kim’s favor.

I’m not going to pretend that I’d ever heard of Kim before this morning. But everybody who has heard of Kim seems to think that the choice is a wonderful and inspired one. Kim is a physician by training; he’s a co-founder of Partners In Health, one of the world’s most respected medical NGOs. He’s also a bit of a big-data geek, which is likely to delight the Bank’s wonky employees.

Kim’s prowess when it comes to navigating Washington’s labyrinthine power structures is unknown; I hope he’s up to the job. But he’s going to bring passion and dedication to his task of poverty reduction, along with a welcome bias towards bottom-up rather than top-down solutions. And I suspect that the World Bank’s board will find it easy to rubber-stamp his nomination.

That said, I very much doubt that Kim would stand a remote chance of getting the job in an open and merit-based competition. He has little if any experience dealing with countries at the head-of-state level, and the Bank has historically not been an organization with a particular focus on health initiatives. Cast your mind back just a few days, to when François Bourguignon, Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz published a piece in the FT calling for the best-qualified candidate to get the job: here are the criteria they listed.

Criteria for shortlisting candidates could be similar to those listed by the IMF board in the procedure that led to the appointment of Christine Lagarde: distinguished record as an economic policymaker, outstanding professional background, familiarity with banking and finance, diplomatic and managerial skills. In the case of the World Bank, solid knowledge and experience of development policy should be added to this list.

Kim has the requisite development-policy background, and also an outstanding professional background, but he’s not a banker, an economist, or a diplomat. It’s also worth looking at his nomination in the light of the stated reason why the head of the World Bank should be an American:

What matters for the World Bank is resources. And keeping an American in charge helps protect those resources.

The United States is the World Bank’s largest donor. That’s been true under both Democratic and Republican administrations. And one of the reasons it’s held so steady, some think, is that the World Bank tends to be led by a high-ranking American official who is able to persuade the White House and Congress to continue supporting the body.

The outgoing World Bank president, for instance, is Bob Zoellick, a highly regarded Republican who served in key positions under both George W. Bush and his father. He was preceded by Paul Wolfowitz, another key Republican policymaker. Many believe the two men played an important role in keeping American financial support for the bank high in years when Republicans controlled the government.

Kim doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who’s particularly great at wrangling Republican votes in Congress. Maybe that doesn’t matter, and all that Congress cares about is that the Bank is run by an American. But this nomination is ultimately a little disappointing, if only because it perpetuates the US hegemony at the Bank at a time when Obama could be opening up the leadership of the institution to a fantastic developing-world candidate instead.

That said, there is one advantage to the convention that the president of the World Bank is nominated by the president of the United States, rather than being chosen in some kind of international beauty contest: it allows POTUS to nominate exactly someone like Kim, a dark-horse candidate who could be wonderful in the job but who doesn’t have a strong international power base. I’m hopeful that Kim will turn out in hindsight to be a wonderful World Bank president, even if (or maybe even because) he couldn’t win the job under the kind of system that most countries want.


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