A Surprise World Bank Pick

President Barack Obama startled handicappers by selecting Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim as the U.S. candidate to lead the World Bank rather than the reported front-runner Larry Summers, Obama's former National Economic Council director.

The Korean-born Kim is a medical doctor, anthropologist, and MacArthur fellow, best known for his pioneering work to fight HIV and tuberculosis in the Third World. Kim helped develop treatments for drug-resistant TB, and then successfully pushed to reduced the cost of anti-TB drugs. He is close associate of Dr. Paul Farmer, the lead founder of Partners in Health and subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

While Third World leaders had pushed for an alternative to Summers, Kim was a total surprise. The appointment is a two-fer in the sense that it gives the job both to an American and to an Asian, as well as a welcome breakthrough in that the presidency goes to someone with on-the-ground work fighting poverty and disease as opposed to an international dignitary or economist.

Jeffrey Sachs, who audaciously threw his own hat into the ring, can take some credit for this surprise choice, since his own move created some pressure for Obama to think outside the box. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also reportedly favorable to the Kim selection. It’s not yet clear what role Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner played. He was close to Summers, but also a rival; and is a Dartmouth man.

For Summers, this ends a winning streak of falling upwards. For Obama, it heartens supporters who were first drawn to his capacity for the bold stroke and were disappointed by his frequent retreats into orthodoxy.

The Kim appointment, which still needs to be officially confirmed at the spring meetings of the World Bank, is a pretty much a forgone conclusion. Though there are other candidates, including Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister and former World Bank official, and José Antonio Ocampo, the former finance minister of Colombia, you can bet the State Department made sure the United States would have the votes.

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