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So President Obama’s pick to head the World Bank wasn’t Larry Summers, and it wasn’t Susan Rice, and it wasn’t Jeff Sachs. It was Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth College—a man most Americans have never heard of. That doesn’t mean it was a bad choice. To the contrary, it might turn out to be an inspired one. But it does come with some queries attached.
Kim, a Korean-born physician and anthropologist who taught at Harvard Medical School, is a pioneering figure in building public-health delivery systems for developing countries. He was a co-founder of Partners in Health, a Boston-based non-profit organization that provides free health care to people in countries such as Haiti and Rwanda. Later, he held a senior post at the World Health Organization, helping scale up its efforts to deal with the H.I.V./AIDS crisis in Africa. (For more on Kim’s record, see this post by Fred Hiatt, the editorial-page editor of the Washington Post, who is an old friend of Kim.)
From the White House’s perspective, a mere recitation of Kim’s résumé demonstrates one of the attractions of choosing him. At a time when many people around the world were saying that it was time for a non-American to head the Bank. Obama defied these calls. But rather than picking a banker, an economist, or a diplomat, he came up with an Asian-American doctor who is clearly on the side of angels, and therefore very difficult to oppose. With Kim’s nomination, the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, which was formally announced this morning, is likely to fizzle.
That’s the cynical political take. From a more substantive perspective, the choice of Kim also has a certain logic to it. In the past twenty years, the biggest change in the field of economic development and poverty reduction has been the integration of public-health initiatives with traditional lending programs. After fifty years of trying, we still don’t know how to make countries like Eritrea and Burundi grow faster. But we do know how to reduce the incidence of H.I.V. and malaria: provide poor people with condoms and mosquito nets. With the rise of the Gates Foundation and other N.G.O.s focussed on public-health issues, the tactics pioneered by Kim and his colleagues at Partners in Health—such as recruiting and training local volunteers to deliver medicines and preventative care, rather than relying on expensive aid workers—have been widely copied and assimilated into official aid programs.
Sachs, who had been vigorously supporting his own candidacy for the Bank job without any encouragement from the Obama Administration, has been one of the most vocal supporters of this more holistic approach to economic development. When Kim’s name was announced this morning, Sachs tweeted: “Jim Kim is a superb nominee for WB. I support him 100%. I thank all who supported me and know they’ll be very pleased with today’s news.” Harvard professor Dani Rodrik, another prominent figure in debates about economic development, also welcomed Kim’s selection, tweeting: “Re World Bank pick, it’s nice to see that Obama can still surprise us.”
If Kim’s nomination goes through, as it surely will, barring something out of the blue—a gentleman’s agreement between the U.S. and Europe means the former has always picked the head of the Bank—the tilt away from old-fashioned development projects and towards public-health initiatives will probably continue. But that is where some of the questions about this nomination arise. Kim won’t be running the World Health Organization: he’ll be running the World Bank. And the Bank, for all the changes it has undergone in the past couple of decades, is still fundamentally a lending agency—a lending agency that is rapidly running out of clients, because many formerly impoverished countries are now growing rapidly.
In a recent blog post, Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Economic Development, pointed out that India, for many years the Bank’s biggest borrower, is growing so rapidly that one day soon Delhi will no longer officially be a poor country, and that means it will won’t qualify for loans from the International Development Association, the Bank’s soft-lending arm. Many other recipients of money from the Bank, such as Vietnam, Ghana, and Sri Lanka, are also approaching middle-income status. In the next dozen years, according to calculations by Moss and his colleague Ben Leo, the Bank will lose more than half of its traditional clients.
What this means, Moss says—and many people inside the Bank agree with him—is that the Bank is facing an existential crisis that demands urgent answers to three questions:
How should the Bank operate in the 30 or so remaining low-income clients, nearly all in sub-Saharan Africa and mostly fragile or post-conflict states, the precise places where the Bank has had the least success?
In an age when capital is plentiful from private sources and new donors like China, how will the Bank continue to be relevant to its hard window and newly-graduated clients?
As shareholders push the Bank into new areas of global public goods, like spurring clean energy technology, how will the organization contribute?
Does Dr. Kim, whose expertise lies in medicine and in the administration of health-care systems, have any answers to these questions? Considering that for the past few years he has been busy managing Dartmouth through a big drop in its endowment, I doubt he has given them much thought. Now that he is heading for D.C., he will have to decide what he wants to do at the Bank, a famously unwieldy and bureaucratic institution, and how to go about it. His predecessor, Robert Zoellick, did a good job of stabilizing things after Paul Wolfowitz’s disastrous tenure. But following the ruptures of that period, which culminated in an unprecedented rebellion by the board of directors, Zoellick was in no position to push through big changes or give the Bank a new mission. That task will fall to Kim.
The good news is he appears to be a quick study, a hard worker, and a good sport—as evidenced by this video, which has gone viral. (It shows him appearing as a rapping spaceman in the Dartmouth Idol contest last year.) All joking aside, everybody who cares about the fate of the world’s poorest and most downtrodden people will be wishing Kim well.