On Monday April 16, 2012, the World Bank Group announced US nominee Jim Yong Kim as its next President, succeeding Robert Zoellick to become the twelfth leader of the world’s premier development organization. Despite his undeniably impressive accomplishments, the choice of Kim by the World Bank has been the brunt of much criticism, from the worlds of finance and international development alike.
An unconventional choice…
At first glance, Kim is an unconventional choice for the Bank. Unlike his predecessors, Kim has relatively little experience in finance or economics. Rather than having held high-ranking government posts, such as Zoellick or Paul Wolfowitz (the tenth President of the World Bank), or founding their own investment firm, such as James Wolfensohn (the ninth President of the World Bank), most of Kim’s experience lies instead in global health.
Early in his career as an M.D., Kim co-founded Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987, along with his colleagues Paul Farmer, Todd McCormack, Thomas White and Ophelia Dahl. Upon it inception, the organization focused on developing community-based initiatives to address the plethora of health problems plaguing Haiti. Later on, PIH tackled multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in Peru with resounding success. In 1997, the WHO released the first edition of their Treatment of Tuberculosis: Guidelines for National Programs, which essentially stated that due to the expense of secondary line treatments, MDR-TB patients were not worth treating. PIH, led by Kim and his colleagues, disagreed. Using their community-based model in the shantytowns of Peru, PIH achieved higher cure rates of MDR-TB than seen in the US at the time. Guided by their principle value of helping those in need regardless of the cost, PIH inspired change in the treatment of MDR-TB against all odds.
Kim also made dramatic strides in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, as the director of the HIV/AIDS program at the WHO. In his time with the organization, Kim spearheaded the 3×5 campaign, which aimed to provide AIDS treatment to three million people in developing countries by 2005. This was perhaps an overambitious goal, as 2005 came and went with approximately only one million people affected by the campaign, but it nonetheless reflected Kim’s need to take on the problems of the world’s most vulnerable. The goal of three million was eventually reached in 2007, and according to The Lancet, the initiative was deemed to have “changed forever the way we think about AIDS.”
As Kim went on to hold several distinguished positions at Harvard and then serve as the President of Dartmouth College, he has continued to push the global health agenda forward through galvanizing student efforts. At Dartmouth, where he began his tenure in 2009, Kim launched the National College Health Improvement Project, aimed to address health issues that affect students. Whether talking about a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa or a college community at Dartmouth, Kim continued to inspire his students to be great. His inaugural address to Dartmouth urged, “Your generation must dream, dream more ambitiously than any who have preceded you. But just to dream is not enough. You must deliver on the dream where previous generations have fallen short.”
All of this has amounted to an impressive resume of accomplishments. Certainly if Kim was named the head of any international health organization, there would be no protest. But a bank? There is an uneasiness among some that Kim does not understand the world of economics, and even worse, vilifies it. In an interview with the Financial Times, economics professor William Easterly called Kim “anti-growth” based on Dying for Growth, a book Kim co-authored. In it, Kim says things like, “The studies in this book present evidence that the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.” So the question is, can a man who is primarily interested in health effectively run an economic institution?
…But not a surprising one
Yet despite Kim’s unconventional background, the World Bank’s choice is not a surprising one. Since its establishment, the WB has followed the same pattern of choosing the nominee put forth by the United States, just as the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has always been chosen by Europe. It did not escape the attention of many that the US was quick to back Europe’s choice of Christine Lagarde for the head of the IMF earlier in 2011, while vice versa was true of the US’s nomination of Kim.
This does not sit well with many in the international development field, given that the World Bank’s primary agenda is to help developing nations, which includes neither the US or Western Europe. Dissenters are quick to label the entire process a political game, devoid of meritocracy. In fact, one of the Kim’s fellow nominees, Colombia’s former finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, withdrew from the race, calling it too political. The only other nominee for the job was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, current finance minister in Nigeria. Highly respected and touted by many, including The Economist, as the best candidate for the job, Okonjo-Iweala has made it her mission to fight the corruption that plagues Nigerian politics, and has experience in economics, government and development – a triad that is critical to the World Bank. Yet, despite Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo’s strong resumes, the announcement of Kim as the next president of the World Bank surprised few. As Professor Simon Evenett, a former World Bank official, told The Guardian, “There was never really a contest…the West won’t give up its hold over these institutions until they need something from the emerging markets.”
The fact that the nomination process is political and US-dominated cannot be ignored. Without a doubt, the process lacks transparency and neutrality. Yet the very existence of protest and competition against the US nominee this year marks progress towards a more meritocratic process. Moreover, a flawed process does not necessarily preclude the selection of exceptional candidates. No one doubts Kim’s sincerity to international development, and his wealth of experience surely means that he knows international cooperation will be vital for success. In a statement he released after being announced as the next President, Kim stated he had already spoken to Oncampo and Okonjo-Iweala, and was eager to draw upon their knowledge during his tenure.
Furthermore, while he does not have formal training in economics, Kim is not without experience. Let’s not forget that for the past three years as Dartmouth President he has been at the helm of a major institution, which includes its financial planning. Moreover, accusations that he is “anti-growth” seem to be exaggerated. His former partner Paul Farmer wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, stating that Kim’s statements in Dying for Growth were taken out of context and that. If anything, Farmer wrote, their prose is pro-growth, seeking new ways to encourage inclusive development for countries in need while simultaneously “raising questions about particular policies and patterns of growth that exclude the great majority of people living in poverty.” All this actually fits in rather well with the World Bank’s mission to help reduce poverty, and to encourage development of the world’s poorest countries. What better person to help the world’s poorest develop, than someone who has worked intimately with them, and has already made it his mission to help them?
Vicki Lee is currently a scientific reviewer for clinical trial pharmaceuticals at Health Canada. She has a B.Sc. in chemistry and is currently completing a Masters in Public Health from the University of Waterloo, which she hopes to put to use in a career in global health.
Horton, R. (2012). Offline: Under a tree in Geneva.The Lancet. 379(9822): 1182