Jim Yong Kim For The World Bank

By Simon Johnson, co-author of White House Burning

A decision on choosing the next president of the World Bank is expected this week – perhaps as early as Monday.  The Obama administration nominated Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College and a noted public health expert.  The reaction to this nomination from development economists and people experienced in the business of lending to poor countries has been overwhelmingly negative.

They are making a big mistake.  Mr. Kim would make an excellent World Bank president.

There are three issues.  First, should the president of the World Bank continue to be an American?  Second, should this position be held by someone with a primary background in economics and finance?  Third, should this job go to a person – like Mr. Kim – who has specialized on public health?

The job of running the World Bank should not necessarily go to an American – just as the job of Managing Director at the International Monetary Fund should not be presumed to go to a European.  The divvying up of these important positions is a de facto arrangement that became established in the 1940s and 1950s, but it has really outlived its appropriateness.

There should be an open competition for both positions – and Mr. Kim faces appropriately strong competition from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a well-respected Nigerian finance minister and former senior official at the World Bank.

There is no question that the White House wants this job to go to an American, mostly because no administration likes to be the one to give up such prerogatives.  And gone are the days when anyone put  up by the United States would necessarily be chosen – even the controversial Paul Wolfowitz went through with surprisingly little pushback, although he ran into trouble subsequently.

But Mr. Kim is a brilliant nomination, precisely because he is so far from the mold of standard World Bank presidents.  For a full write-up of his accomplishments, see this piece by Anjali Sastry and Rebecca Weintraub.  (Sastry is one of my colleagues at MIT, where she teaches a very successful course that integrates global health and management issues, follow her @anj_sas; Weintraub is a physician and prominent public health specialist.)

The World Bank does not need “more of the same” in terms of vision from its leadership.  Like it or not, the World Bank will continue to issue bonds and make loans to countries for infrastructure and other projects, typically at an interest rate that is somewhat below what is being charged by the private sector.  It will also try to raise donor funds that can be shared with very poor countries, preferably in a productive manner.

The World Bank will also continue to struggle having a profound impact on people’s lives with these standard development lending activities.  To understand this point, look at two books.  Bill Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth is a brilliant account of what has gone wrong – repeatedly – with thinking about development, including but not limited to the World Bank.  Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson’s new bestseller, Why Nations Fail, provides all you need to know – and probably more than you can stomach – about why some countries stay so poor.  The very sad truth is that powerful people in some places do very well, in their own estimation, when the rest of the country remains in ruins.  And there is nothing the World Bank – or anyone else in development economics – can do to break through and share prosperity more broadly in those places.  (You can follow Easterly and Acmeoglu/Robinson on twitter: @bill_easterly and @WhyNationsFail; the conversation around @WhyNationsFail is particularly lively and informative at present.)

But public health is different.   In contrast to the lack luster performance of development economics over the past half century, public health intellectuals and officials have completely transformed health outcomes around the world.  This process started early in the 20th century but really picked up pace in the 1940s and 1950s (for more historical background and medical details, see “Disease and Development,” a 2007 paper co-authored with Daron Acemoglu.)

The very poorest people in the world did not participate fully in this global health transformation – partly because of the problems outlined in Why Nations Fail.  But leaders like Mr. Kim – and in fact Mr. Kim himself – are leading a second breakthrough, in which better health services are being delivered even to very poor people in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

There is a great deal more to be done.  The World Bank does good work supporting public health initiatives, but it could do much more.  If Mr. Kim becomes World Bank president – and preferably stays in that position for a decade – we should expect to see a great deal more progress.

The task now is to mobilize private donors, pharmaceutical companies, and officials in a robust coalition focusing on improving health and increasing life expectancy.  The mortality of children under the age of 5 is likely to be a top priority in that context.  Reducing maternal mortality should also get a great deal of attention.

All of this is completely achievable.  Public health has done well in the past half century.  We should provide more resources and encourage greater success.  Save and improve millions of lives.

Mr. Kim is exactly the right person to lead the next transformation of global health outcomes.

15 thoughts on “Jim Yong Kim For The World Bank

  1. Seriously? From Nigeria?

    Why is it that experts are increasingly the people who just study what other people accomplished and no experts are around that created a science-culture based *health care* as compared to shamanism? Odd, no?

    The critics aren’t normally mistaken for the playwright…

    People are proportionally sicker in China as environmental pollution increases…so yeah, it’s a growing market everywhere where that is happening…

  2. Maybe a fourth issue would be: should a body representing democratically elected governments choose its head by a secret back-door “arrangement” or by democratic election? Oddly enough, whilst you immediately focus on this as a problem for the body, you neglect to count it among your “three issues” regarding this appointment.

  3. Simon, thanks for your thoughts on this… It is very refreshing to see an economist willing to admit that more of the same in development economics is not what we need.
    I would suggest, though, that there’s more than health that Jim Kim will be able to address… his work on the “delivery science” of global health–actulaly studying, with rigor, what works and what doesn’t to get real results for impoverished communites–has implications far beyond health to education, employment, etc. In many ways, he’s the perfect person for the Bank if you take seriously it’s currently claimed mission…
    See piece on Huffington Post on that.

  4. @mk – agreed, getting the locals set up with a manufacturing facility to make the medicine that their location needs will be a challenge. So far, what we’ve got is manufacturing facilities in the most crowded urban area in USA – NYC-Newark – closing up shop and waiting for the cheaper stuff to be shipped from 12 time zones away…

  5. Along with Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl, Jim Yong Kim co-founded Partners in Health, a remarlable organization whose work is well described in Tracy Kidder’s excellent “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Paul Farmer. Kim is indeed a surprising and excellent choice by Obama. But his competitor, from Nigeria no less, is also excellent, and seems to have her head screwed on right.

    What the World Bank needs is what Kim can bring to it: a change to bottom up rather than top down development. For an example of the success of this approach, see http://www.urdt.net . URDT has done extraodinary things in Western Uganda, dedicated to “Awakening the Sleeping Genius in Each of Us”. As Mwalimu Musheshe, its head, says to poor farmers in rural Uganda: “No one is going to develop you but yourself.” And then they do. This is the kind of effort the World Bank should assist, and it is more likely to under Jim Yong Kim.

  6. A disappointing post — you need to make a case that he will be able to do well something more than health work. Or else he should be back at the WHO, or in a senior WB post that focuses on health. Not president of the Bank.

  7. I support Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala which does not of course mean that I exclude the possibility of Jim Yong Kim, if elected, becoming the best World Bank president ever… But Simon Johnson´s arguments here are worthy of a first class Cirque du Soleil contortionist.

    The board of the World Bank, supposed to elect the president based on merits applicable to the World Bank, shall now elect based on the absence of those merits they have not yet decided should not be taken into consideration?

    If you want a different World Bank, which in many ways is ok with me, then you decide that first and thereafter you select an appropriate candidate. What you cannot do, is as a fall back positions use that of “since he might not have as many merits as the others then let´s change the bank to accommodate for that.”

  8. Simon, you obviously have not read Michael Parenti’s The Face of Imperialism, and the dozens of other books making the same point.
    Rest assured, whomever is chosen will be looking after American corporate interests, or he wouldn’t be chosen.

  9. If Dr. Jim Young Kim is a Korean national working and living in Korea, would US choose him?

  10. Dr. Kim is a great pick for many reasons. To prove that he turn the World Bank ship around, and show that he is serious about protecting public health he can take 2 immediate actions once he is appointed: (1) stop the financing of land grabs in Africa — financed by World Bank (2) stop the WB’s financing of coal fired power plants. For my full analysis on Ekos-Squared see: http://ecosquared.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/dr-jim-yong-kim-obamas-great-pick-for-world-bank-chief-can-he-turn-the-ship-around/

  11. @Woop – one aggressive blogger let slip a plan, somewhere, floating around – they’re gonna raid the Vatican and sell off the artwork to paid for HIV meds…

  12. Ok so now it is over

    I wholeheartedly, or at least almost wholeheartedly, supported Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and so of course I am disappointed that what I believed her superior merits for the post did not triumph nationality. Also, what happened will not make Jim Yong Kim difficult task easier…

    But that said, life goes on and let us not forget that when compared to the immensity of the problems the world faces, the chances of us the insignificants to help out, are just as big as that of the World Bank´s president…

    And so let us not make a bigger deal out of this than what it is… which does not mean either that we should not fight for the merits next time, and this even though none of us can be really sure of which merits should count.

    And so, sincerely, good Luck Mr. Jim Yong Kim

  13. @Per – my favorite group of insignificants are FEMEN. They started their movement with a single slogan, “Ukraine is Not A Bordello” and went on from there :-)

    Of course, for all the earth’s many peoples and cultures who are not aware of the historical seriousness of the moral symbolism behind women “ripping apart their garments” in moral outrage over what is going on, they would not understand the merit of putting a person who is willing to go that far in protest in charge of our immense world problems. Could turn out that there are, really, only a handful of same problems affecting humanity everywhere that have become immense because of the brute force exerted in maintaining the status quo for a self-proclaimed elite who treat the world like their personal bordello, and worse.

    But yes, good luck to Kim. No need to steal artwork because everyone certainly can create new artwork to barter for meds.

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