Should President Obama's Choice Become President of the World Bank?

March 23, 2012 1:45 PM

The surprise could hardly have been greater over the news that President Barack Obama had nominated Jim Young Kim, president of Dartmouth College, to the post as president of the World Bank. Before going to Dartmouth, Kim was a prominent professor of medicine and expert on global health issues. He has done extensive work on improving health in developing countries. But is he the right person for the job?

The president of the World Bank automatically becomes one of the most prominent figures in the field of international cooperation. But since Kim is not well known, it will be difficult for him to gain the necessary authority. If he were to be approved by the bank's board, it would be reminiscent of the little-known Catherine Ashton becoming appointed the first foreign minister of the European Union, where she has run into repeated challenges because of her lack of experience.

Second, Kim has worked within health, which is the responsibility of the World Health Organization (WHO), where he was a former director of HIV/AIDS programs. The WHO is widely considered one of the best UN organizations. Admittedly health is one important plank of development economics, but still only one among many. The World Bank should not try to duplicate the work of the WHO. Kim does not appear to have any background in development economics outside of health, thus falling short of one of the most important criteria. 

Can such a questionable candidate win the approval of the bank's other constituencies, particularly the Europeans and the developing world countries? Because this is such an unusual nomination, many donor nations and many others from the developing world are likely to challenge his credentials.

If this American nomination opens the door to candidates from the emerging economies, it could be the most welcome aspect of this nomination. Nigeria has nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister and a former World Bank official; José Antonio Ocampo, the former finance minister of Colombia and a United Nations official, is reported to be another candidate. The fact that President Obama's nomination came on the last possible day, and that it was such a surprise, does little to strengthen the credibility of the US government nomination process. If this choice is of little interest to the US government, it would be better if somebody else got the job.

In the Financial Times on March 21, three former chief economists—Joseph Stiglitz, Nicholas Stern, and Francois Bourguignon—called for an "open, transparent, and merit-based process." They proposed that a selection committee within the bank be set up to nominate a few candidates that would then face competitive election in the Executive Board. In particular, the requirement that the president of the World Bank be a citizen of one particular nation should be abolished and replaced with a competitive election based on merits, as is typical of all UN organizations, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank being the sad exceptions. This would amount to a substantial improvement. The G-20 has committed itself in principle to removing the traditional bias shown toward one country or group of countries for the World Bank and the IMF. It would be a grievous mistake to turn that commitment into a hollow one so quickly.

The best that can be said of the US nomination today is that it might pave the way to choosing the next World Bank president in such an open and merit-based competition.