Not World Bank of America

Americans committed to development and to the U.S. playing a positive role on the global stage should encourage President Barack Obama to announce his support for an open, transparent, and meritocratic process in selecting the next leader of the World Bank. In the past, other countries have simply deferred to the U.S. to nominate a new head, whose selection was then followed by a pro forma up-or-down vote by the World Bank’s board. The U.S. has now nominated Dr. Jim Yong Kim, currently president of Dartmouth. In part because of the disastrous consequences of Bush ramming through Paul Wolfowitz, who later was forced to resign, other countries put forward nominees, including the Africans also put forward a nominee: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The current process is a holdover from 1944, when at Bretton Woods the organizations of post-war global economy were negotiated. There was a “gentleman’s agreement” that an American would lead the World Bank and a European would lead the International Monetary Fund and the two would swap votes. Given that countries vote their capital shares, this puts a lock on the process. 

Many people feel Kim is a good American nominee—better than Larry Summers (whom I am close to, but don’t speak for) and better than former nominees who were private bankers or diplomats or politicians. Now the only question is: Between Dr. Kim and Ngozi who is a better qualified candidate to lead the World Bank?

Before the Kim announcement, three former World Bank chief economists, none of whom can be accused of being dogmatic “neo-liberal” or even “right wing” economists—Joseph Stiglitz (American), Nick Stern (British), and Francois Bourguignon (French)—called publicly for a meritocratic process and put forward the criteria: "distinguished record as an economic policymaker, outstanding professional background, familiarity with banking and finance, diplomatic and managerial skills …. solid knowledge and experience of development policy," and on these criteria it is a walkover for Ngozi.

Dr. Kim has an outstanding professional background—he is a medical doctor and social anthropologist and was co-founder of Partners in Health with Paul Famer. But his experience is limited to health. He has no record as an economic policymaker, no familiarity with banking and finance, less experience with development policy (versus advocacy and the practice of implementation), and his only exposure on diplomatic skills being head of one division of the World Health Organization.  

Ngozi has a distinguished record as an economic policymaker, having twice been Nigeria’s Minister of Finance. She has an outstanding professional background (trained in regional economic development at MIT). She negotiated Nigeria’s debt relief at the Paris club saving billions for her country—she knows finance and banking. She has been a Managing Director of the World Bank and has demonstrated diplomatic and managerial skills at the highest level—including getting the World Bank’s grant window replenishment through the U.S. Congress. She has solid knowledge and experience of development policy on the broad array of the complex issues the World Bank is engaged in. 

Here is the Obama administration’s problem. Whenever a demanding, and high-profile, job—like head neurosurgeon at UCSF, or shortstop for the New York Yankees, or the next James Bond, or the head of Yale Law School—comes open, people do short lists. There will be differences among the short lists and some overlap, but put them all together and there is typically a broad consensus about the top three and top ten. 

As the current bank president announced his retirement well in advance, there was at least a month of speculation about who the next head could be. Ngozi was on nearly everyone’s short list (and was already on those short lists in 2007, when Robert Zoellick was chosen)—the knock being, then and now, that she was not American. 

In contrast, I never saw Dr. Kim’s name mentioned once by anyone—not in the press, not on the blogs, not in the rumors, not even by anyone in the Obama administration—until the day he was announced. How is it that Dr. Kim is, on the merits, the best qualified candidate in the whole world for the job but yet, until Obama announced that he was—no one else in the whole world thought of that? The announcement caught nearly all development and policy people completely by surprise.

Kim’s current supporters should explain why, if they now think Dr. Kim is the best qualified person in the world to head the World Bank, why they did not say that before the Obama announcement? More pointedly, did they really think that before the announcement?  

I am not strong on Catholic theology, but I think there is a doctrine of transubstantiation in which everyone agrees a wafer is a wafer is a wafer but then a priest says some words and then, for believers, comes the body of Christ. Is Dr. Kim the best-qualified candidate for the World Bank job on substance or transubstantiation? 

Obama can show himself to be the transformational global leader that I believe that he is—and that Bush, in imposing Wolfowitz, certainly was not—by announcing that the U.S., having placed into the process an excellent American nominee who they will vote for, is at the same time committed to an open, transparent, and meritocratic selection of the next president of the World Bank and therefore will accept whomever emerges. 

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