The unfortunate coronation of Jim Yong Kim

Last month, Jim Yong Kim was elected president of the World Bank. The campaign was the subject of serious controversy, as he won out over two candidates whom every economist with a blog finds more qualified. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Jose Antonio Ocampo, the former finance ministers of Nigeria and Colombia, respectively, received wide support from former World Bank staffers, academics, and reportedly a number of Asian and African countries on the bank’s board. Both came with serious backgrounds in finance.

Dr. Jim Yong KimPete Souza/The White House

President Barack Obama talks with Dr. Jim Yong Kim and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner before announcing Kim’s nomination for presidency of the World Bank.

In contrast, Kim’s background in public health (as co-founder of Partners in Health and a former head of the HIV/AIDS division at the World Health Organization), while accomplished, does not seem to fit with the needs of one of the most important financial institutions on the planet. Many speculated that, by nominating Kim to the post, the U.S. government was trying to shoehorn a weak candidate into the bank. Nonetheless, in spite of the widespread criticism facing his candidacy, the combined power of the U.S. and European voting blocs proved decisive.

Although Kim was a U.S. appointee candidate, he does not fit into the ideological mold of the typical Treasury Department pick. Past U.S. appointees to the World Bank have usually been ardent free-marketers, whereas Kim has historically been a critic of the Washington Consensus. His book, “Dying for Growth,” heavily critiqued globalization’s impact on poverty. The book’s arguments seem to be more suited to the dreadlocks and hemp crowd of the World Social Forum than the suit-and-tie denizens of Davos (the usual crowd of a World Bank president). At the very least, it will be interesting to see the World Bank under the leadership of someone with an outlook so decidedly outside of the neoliberal orthodoxy. At face value, Kim stood to the left of his opponents. Okonjo-Iweala is an austerity hawk and champion of fiscal discipline. She oversaw Nigeria as it fulfilled its debt obligations and removed its fuel subsidy, and she has pushed for widespread privatization. Logically, she should have been the ideological choice of the Washington Consensus.

Further, one of the strongest criticisms of Kim’s selection is that the bank has only been led by American presidents and, since the bank’s activities occur in developing and emerging markets, someone from the global South should come to lead the bank. But while a non-American president at the bank is long overdue, it is foolish to assume that President Obama would give away that coveted position, considering that Republicans have spent years accusing him of going on some sort of worldwide apology tour. It’s easy to imagine the purple veins at Fox News pulsing while some representative of the John Birch Society screams about the president selling out America’s economic interests.

A video of Kim rapping shows that he does not take himself too seriously, a trait that I find rather important in policy makers — especially so for the heads of multilateral agencies, where diplomacy is often the name of the game. An unlikeable bank president will have a hard time convincing governments to adopt policies or commit donor funding. This is one area where Kim shows strong potential.

Kim might indeed rise to the occasion. His diplomacy skills and history in development might outweigh his lack of financial experience. I agree with Chris Blattman that he will probably surpass the low expectations that the development community has attached to his presidency. His 20 years of experience working in development, while not financial, allows room for a modicum of optimism (at least on my part). However, candidates should not be chosen based on wishful thinking alone. The head of a multilateral institution should not have to rise to the occasion. Rather, their chops should be proven beforehand.

Inasmuch, the coronation election process was nothing short of a sham. Kim was installed in what appears to have been a back-door process, and the only open forum for the candidates to discuss their plans for the World Bank was snubbed by Kim. These criticisms, echoed by a number of commentators, are neither new nor specific to this election. Remember when George W. Bush steamrolled Paul Wolfowitz into the bank presidency?

The election of the bank president has never been a transparent or open process. Kim played and won by the rules of the game — POTUS picks you and you become president of the World Bank — and he should hardly be the focus of anger. Rather, our interest should be in making the next election a fairer and more transparent process. This round of elections was the first where the bank’s opacity was challenged. If Kim runs for reelection in five years, it should be on the merit of his track record, not the favorability of the U.S. Treasury Department. 

Alex Merkovic-Orenstein is a consultant to the United Nations in Kigali, Rwanda. He holds a master’s in development studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.