Jim Yong Kim – a public health expert, president of Dartmouth College
and astute rapper – is the US government’s candidate for the presidency
of the World Bank. As Dani Rodrik, a development expert at Harvard
University, summed it up this morning, “it’s nice to see that Obama can
still surprise us.” Will the new candidate, who was not on anybody’s
shortlist for the position, be able to reinvent the World Bank?
The current process, in which the US and European governments divide up the World Bank and IMF top posts among themselves, is a farce and needs to be changed. Southern governments have put forward Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
and Jose Antonio Ocampo, the finance ministers of Nigeria and (formerly)
Colombia, for the position. By nominating a candidate without any
experience in global finance and politics, the Obama administration
appears to poke a finger in the eyes of these governments. Lant
Pritchett, a former World Bank official, has already decried Kim’s
nomination as “an embarrassment for the US.”
Civil society groups from the South and North agree on the need to
democratize global governance. The colleagues behind the World Bank
President website even carried out a poll among nine potential
heavy-weight candidates from developing countries. While I share the
critique of the current process, I do not understand why NGO activists
need to support representatives of the status quo such as South Africa’s
finance minister Trevor Manuel or in fact Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was
the World Bank’s Managing Director for many years.
So what is the track record of the new candidate? In 1987, Jim Yong Kim
co-founded Partners In Health, a healthcare non-profit, with four other
public health experts. PIH believes that health care is a right, and
makes diagnosis and treatment available to all patients for free. The
organization supports a preventive approach by promoting people’s right
to food, water, education and housing. It relies on community activists
rather than expensive experts to promote disease prevention and deliver
medicines for the treatment of AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases
that afflict the poor.
Through the Institute for Health and Social Justice, PIH also exposes
the social and economic roots of the public health crisis in poor
countries. In /Dying for Growth/, a book that was edited by Jim Yong
Kim, the Institute documented that lacking access to health care was not
a question of insufficient resources but unequal power, and that the
economic policies of governments, funders and corporations can deepen
the health crisis of the poor. While I cannot claim to know Jim Yong
Kim’s work in detail, this approach is certainly closer to my heart than
the policies espoused by other candidates for the World Bank job.
The World Bank needs to reinvent itself. Since Southern financiers have
overtaken the institution in terms of lending, this is no longer simply
the position of NGO activists. The Bank currently tries to cut its
administrative costs by focusing on big, centralized infrastructure
projects such as multipurpose dams. As I have shown elsewhere, this
approach has bypassed the rural poor since it first became en vogue in
the 1950s and 1960s.
Decentralized, bottom-up solutions such as solar panels, improved
cooking stoves, treadle pumps and drip irrigation could address the
energy and water needs of the poor more effectively than the centralized
mega-projects of the past, in the same way that the cell phone
revolution has made the landline approach obsolete in the communication
sector. The experience that Jim Yong Kim gained with PIH in the villages
of Haiti and the slums of Peru could help him understand how to address
poverty and injustice through bottom-up solutions.
Could Jim Yong Kim’s presidency offer a chance to reinvent the World
Bank? Redirecting the supertanker of multilateral development finance
will take more than a change of presidents. The entrenched interests in
the Bank’s management and board will try to prevent a change of course.
But why would the Obama administration nominate Jim Yong Kim if it were
not prepared to back a new approach?
Again, the selection process for the World Bank presidency needs to
change. But Jim Yong Kim appears to be the most interesting and
promising candidate regardless of his (US and Korean) passports. The
World Bank is facing exciting times.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs
at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets at