Aaaand we’re back! Kim announces surprise departure, kicking off a sooner than expected leadership challenge

Jim Yong Kim announced on 7 January he is leaving the World Bank for the private sector. Credit: World Bank.

World Bank Group (WBG) President Jim Yong Kim announced his resignation on Monday, 7 January, to the apparent surprise of the World Bank’s Board of Directors and senior staff.

In a letter to staff, Kim indicated that his departure was “unexpected”, and that he would be joining a private investment firm, stating that “this is the path through which I will be able to make the largest impact on major global issues like climate change and the infrastructure deficit in emerging markets.” On 9 January, it was announced that Kim will join Global Infrastructure Partners as a Vice Chairman and Partner.

Since Kim’s shock announcement, questions have swirled about why he chose to depart with more than three years remaining on his second term – he was re-appointed in September 2016 – and indeed whether his new role represents a potential conflict of interest, given the Bank’s aggressive promotion of mobilising private finance for infrastructure projects under his leadership.

The Bank announced on 10 January that it would try to move quickly to appoint Kim’s successor, with the nomination process for candidates due to occur between 7 February and 14 March. The Bank’s press release noted, “The World Bank Board affirmed its commitment to an open, merit-based and transparent selection process”, in line with rules introduced in 2011. The release added, “Formal interviews…will be conducted for all shortlisted candidates with the expectation of selecting the new President before the Spring Meetings of 2019 [in April].”

Kristalina Georgieva, the WBG’s CEO, will take over as president on an interim basis from 1 February, when Kim will depart.

A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ has historically meant that the Bank president has been an American, handpicked by the US – the Bank’s largest shareholder – with the head of the IMF being European. However, the Bank’s own procedures require Kim’s replacement to be elected by the Bank’s Board, and opposition to a hand-picked US candidate has steadily grown over recent decades. A number of op-eds have already called for a non-American (or at least merit-based) appointment (for examples, see here, here and here), including from some unlikely quarters, such as former US Treasury official Mark Sobel (see here).

Of course, the antagonistic position of the current US Government to multilateralism generally (although it’s worth noting the US did eventually back the Bank’s general capital increase in 2018) adds further potential complications to the upcoming selection process. Further complicating the selection process is the rise of regressive and oppressive regimes in key economies in the Global South which could have been expected to provide alternatives to a US candidate. The positions of the Bank’s European shareholders will undoubtedly help decisively shape the direction the selection process takes as well.

Given the importance of a robust and transparent process in setting the Bank’s course in the coming years, the demands raised by civil society campaigners before Kim was appointed in 2012 remain relevant today:

  • The World Bank describes itself as a democratic institution. The new President should thus be democratically selected by a majority of World Bank member countries, not just a majority of voting shares – the majority of these are from low and middle-income countries.
  • The selection process should be open to anyone to apply, with interviews held in public and with open voting procedures.
  • A clear job description and required qualifications should be set out and made public, and these should include a strong understanding and experience of the particular problems facing countries in which the World Bank operates.

While issues of leadership at the World Bank and IMF are always of great importance, the challenges facing the world today, from the climate crisis to the rise of nationalism and regressive governments globally, to increased inequality and the lack of democratic governance inherent in relying on private finance for development, makes the current ‘leadership race’, at what remains an important global institution and agenda-setter, particularly important.

Throughout the selection process, this platform will provide up-to-date media coverage and speculation, insider gossip, official reactions and key demands from civil society, so watch this space!

As an opening salvo, civil society advocates call for the Bank’s shareholders to ensure a genuinely open and fair appointment process, that leads to the appointment of a qualified candidate who will put people-focused development at the centre of the Bank’s work.

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While you’re here, check out these statements from civil society on Kim’s departure:

Accountability Counsel: The World Bank Group President Steps Down, Adding to Washington Ethics Lapses and Cementing a Legacy

BIC Europe: Reaction to World Bank President Kim’s resignation

Oxfam International: Jim Kim to stand down as President of World Bank

Urgewald: Comment on Resignation of World Bank President Kim

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