Jim Yong Kim’s depressing tactical silence

By Felix Salmon
April 5, 2012
nominated Jim Yong Kim to be the president of the World Bank, the most notable thing that he said was about Trayvon Martin. And since then, Kim has disappeared.

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When Barack Obama nominated Jim Yong Kim to be the president of the World Bank, the most notable thing that he said was about Trayvon Martin. And since then, Kim has disappeared. Jesse Griffiths put up a post on Sunday starting a Kim-watch, but so far nothing; it’s increasingly obvious that he’s not going to turn up, for instance, for the CGD/World Bank Q&A sessions next week. (They’re being webcast; Okonjo-Iweala is up at 3pm on Monday, while Ocampo is scheduled for 4pm on Tuesday.)

(*Update: Kim has actually given a handful of on-the-record interviews, which make it very clear that giving on-the-record interviews is not a great way for him to get the job. Indeed, the most striking thing about them is his propensity to flat-out lie. “I am very proud to be part of what is the first contested, merit based, open election ever for presidency of the World Bank,” he told Capital Ethiopia. “I am proud of being part of the first transparent, merit-based election in the World Bank history,” he said to the Hindustan Times. “I’m coming into this election and not asking people to support me because I’m an American,” he told Nikkei. “I ask people to support me because of my experience.” But of course it goes without saying that this election is not transparent, and is not merit-based. If it were merit-based, the Canadians and the Japanese would probably have met with Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo before declaring their support for Kim. It’s bad enough that Kim is being installed in the presidency of the World Bank by the divine right of POTUS. But it’s much worse that he thinks that if he wins, he’s going to have done so fair and square.)

Kim is unlikely to make a public appearance at the UN, where both Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo are due to moderate panels on Wednesday on the subject of whether financial speculation is raising global food prices. (Interestingly, one of the panelists in Ocampo’s session is Jeff Sachs, who was himself nominated for the job of World Bank president.)

This makes perfect narrow tactical sense, if Kim’s sole aim right now is to clinch the presidency at any cost. He has already quietly received the official support of both Canada and Japan; all he needs now is to make no waves, sew up the European vote, and report for work in a couple of months. Engaging in any kind of public statement or debate has only downside and no upside for him, especially as the first question he’d get would surely be whether or not he thinks that the selection process should be an open one designed to choose the best candidate for the job.

But does Treasury really want to impose its candidate in such a heavy-handed manner? Joe Stiglitz is absolutely right that America’s best interests might not in fact be served by having an American in charge:

Should America continue to insist on controlling the selection process, it is the Bank itself that would suffer. For years, the Bank’s effectiveness was compromised because it was seen, in part, as a tool of Western governments and their countries’ financial and corporate sectors. Ironically, even America’s long-term interests would be best served by a commitment – not just in words, but also in deeds – to a merit-based system and good governance.

This is pretty much the unanimous view within the World Bank itself, where the new president is going to have to have significant support from the rank and file if any substantive changes are ever going to happen.

No heavyweights have come out and said that Kim is better qualified than either Okonjo-Iweala or Ocampo; certainly Kim has nothing like the intellectual weight of the petition in favor of Ocampo behind him.

It seems to me, then, that the US government in general, and the Geithner-Clinton axis in particular, doesn’t actually want any real change at the World Bank. Change can only come from a strong president who is strongly supported by the US, which has veto power over any real changes. Kim will be a weak president. If Treasury wanted change at the Bank, then the US should have thrown its weight behind Okonjo-Iweala, who has the bureaucratic chops to make it happen. Or, if it wanted to keep the presidency in the Americas, it could have nominated someone like Michele Bachelet or even Paul Martin.

Instead, the Obama administration opted to nominate someone with a narrow health focus, who as far as anybody can tell has no big vision for the Bank at all, and whose ability to steer this particular supertanker is almost certainly going to be very limited. The World Bank, under Kim, will decline in relevance, as the new creditor nations, especially Brazil and China, demonstrate understandable reluctance to fund an organization in which they have distressingly little voice.

Barack Obama, here, had the opportunity to nominate a Bank president who comes from a recipient of World Bank funds, rather than a representative of the lenders. That would have been a truly revolutionary and welcome move. Instead, he opted for a continuation of the status quo. Which means that once Kim gets the job, he’ll basically be restricted to tinkering around the edges.

The World Bank can and should be a force for effective change and poverty reduction around the world. But the US nominee is clearly much more interested in simply filling the position than he is in laying out a vision for what he thinks the Bank should do, or engaging in any public debate at all about whether he should get the job that he’s applying for. And if he doesn’t want to be open about such things, it’s very hard to see why the world should give him the benefit of the doubt. Here’s hoping that the Bank’s board grows itself a backbone and chooses the best candidate, rather than the one they’re being strong-armed into simply accepting.

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