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Can Jim Yong Kim Reinvent the World Bank?

Jim Yong Kim – a public health expert, president of Dartmouth College and astute rapper – is the US government’s candidate for the presidency of the World Bank. As Dani Rodrik, a development expert at Harvard University, summed it up this morning, “it’s nice to see that Obama can still surprise us.” Will the new candidate, who was not on anybody’s shortlist for the position, be able to reinvent the World Bank?

The current process, in which the US and European governments divide up the World Bank and IMF top posts among themselves, is a farce and needs to be changed. Southern governments have put forward Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Jose Antonio Ocampo, the finance ministers of Nigeria and (formerly) Colombia, for the position.

By nominating a candidate without any experience in global finance and politics, the Obama administration appears to poke a finger in the eyes of these governments. Lant Pritchett, a former World Bank official, has already decried Kim’s nomination as “an embarrassment for the US.” Civil society groups from the South and North agree on the need to democratize global governance. The colleagues behind the World Bank President website even carried out a poll among nine potential heavy-weight candidates from developing countries.

While I share the critique of the current process, I do not understand why NGO activists need to support representatives of the status quo such as South Africa’s finance minister Trevor Manuel or in fact Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was the World Bank’s Managing Director for many years.

So what is the track record of the new candidate? In 1987, Jim Yong Kim co-founded Partners In Health, a healthcare non-profit, with four other public health experts. PIH believes that health care is a right, and makes diagnosis and treatment available to all patients for free. The organization supports a preventive approach by promoting people’s right to food, water, education, and housing. It relies on community activists rather than expensive experts to promote disease prevention and deliver medicines for the treatment of AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases that afflict the poor.

Through the Institute for Health and Social Justice, PIH also exposes the social and economic roots of the public health crisis in poor countries. In Dying for Growth, a book that was edited by Jim Yong Kim, the Institute documented that lacking access to health care was not a question of insufficient resources but unequal power and that the economic policies of governments, funders and corporations can deepen the health crisis of the poor. While I cannot claim to know Jim Yong Kim’s work in detail, this approach is certainly closer to my heart than the policies espoused by other candidates for the World Bank job.

The World Bank needs to reinvent itself. Since Southern financiers have overtaken the institution in terms of lending, this is no longer simply the position of NGO activists. The Bank currently tries to cut its administrative costs by focusing on big, centralized infrastructure projects such as multipurpose dams. As I have shown elsewhere, this approach has bypassed the rural poor since it first became en vogue in the 1950s and 1960s.

Decentralized, bottom-up solutions such as solar panels, improved cooking stoves, treadle pumps, and drip irrigation could address the energy and water needs of the poor more effectively than the centralized mega-projects of the past, in the same way that the cell phone revolution has made the landline approach obsolete in the communication sector. The experience that Jim Yong Kim gained with PIH in the villages of Haiti and the slums of Peru could help him understand how to address poverty and injustice through bottom-up solutions.

Could Jim Yong Kim’s presidency offer a chance to reinvent the World Bank? Redirecting the supertanker of multilateral development finance will take more than a change of presidents. The entrenched interests in the Bank’s management and board will try to prevent a change of course. But why would the Obama administration nominate Jim Yong Kim if it were not prepared to back a new approach? Again, the selection process for the World Bank presidency needs to change. But Jim Yong Kim appears to be the most interesting and promising candidate regardless of his (US and Korean) passports. The World Bank is facing exciting times.