Is the World Bank board sure what Jim Kim thinks?

By Felix Salmon
April 13, 2012
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William Easterly is uncharacteristically credulous today. He spoke to one of those Senior Administration Officials on Wednesday, and the Official gave Easterly the official explanation for why Jim Yong Kim has failed to RSVP for the CGD/Washington Post forum or for any other public appearance.

The official said it was purely logistical: Kim has been constantly on the road meeting member governments, and would continue to be on the road right up until the vote.

Moreover, Kim’s nomination happened at the last possible moment, and the nominations of Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo were also late. The official said this was a global appointment and not a Washington one, so member governments have a higher claim on Kim’s very limited time than development experts.

I confess this argument (almost) convinces me.

Easterly goes on to say that because there needs to be some kind of public debate about Kim’s views on development, the World Bank’s board should delay its choice in the matter until after that debate has happened.

That’s not going to happen: by all accounts we’re well into the end of the process already. The board has interviewed all three candidates, and today is taking a straw poll — a process designed to build consensus (if you’re being charitable) or make it obvious that no non-U.S. candidate has any chance of winning (if you’re not). Jose Antonio Ocampo has officially withdrawn his candidacy in favor of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; it’s a noble move, but it’s unlikely to have much practical effect. By Monday, barring some divine intervention, Kim will have been officially awarded the job, in a process characterized by extreme opacity — especially now that a key BRIC nation, Russia, is officially supporting Kim.

I do appreciate that Kim’s constituency, both now and for however long he holds his new job, is the Bank’s shareholders, rather than the broader public. And so, like any good politician, he’s concentrating on buttering up his constituents.

But when most politicians butter up their constituents, they do so in public, and the news media is there to report on what they’re saying. Kim’s meetings, in contrast, have all taken place behind closed doors.

Daniel Altman thinks it’s a “canard” that the next president of the Bank should be asked to make his case to the public, on the grounds that hey, the Bank doesn’t actually cost taxpayers that much. But this isn’t about money, it’s about transparency. And specifically, if all of Kim’s meetings are being held behind closed doors, no one knows what horses are being traded, what the countries with the most votes are asking of Kim, and what he’s promising them in return for their vote.

If a candidate appears in public and says quite clearly what his vision for the bank is and what he intends to do about certain matters, then at least there’s something to hold him to once he’s in office. Kim, by contrast, has said essentially nothing about what he wants to do at the Bank; everybody supporting him is essentially projecting their own hopes for what they would like him to do.

And so while I wouldn’t go so far as Michael Clemens, who suggests that Kim’s nomination could be a violation of the Bank’s articles of agreement, if I were on the board I’d be a bit worried about what Kim had told all the other countries while he was on his “listening tour”, and I’d welcome a public position statement from him just to make sure that he’s saying the same thing to everybody.

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