WHO’s Kim? Obama’s first choice for World Bank President

Jim Yong Kim is President Obama’s nominee for the World Bank Presidency. National Institute of Health web site

Quite a surprise. Jim Yong Kim, former World Health Organisation (WHO) chief, is Barack Obama’s nominee for the presidency of the World Bank. The White House announced Obama’s support for Kim, currently president of Dartmouth College, earlier this week.

None of the widely-touted names – Hillary Clinton, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers – made the final cut. Apparently, none of them wanted the job. Moreover, neither Clinton nor Geithner finish their term with the Obama administration until January 2013, meaning a messy interim appointment would have been required, as the World Bank post needs to be filled by July, when serving president Robert Zoellick hangs up his hat.

The developing world’s favourite choice (probably), Jeff Sachs, declared his support for Jim Kim once Obama made his preferred candidate known. However, there are a still a couple of outside chances.

There are long odds on Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, who is a well-regarded economist, and has already served as the World Bank’s managing director.

But the World Bank job has always been a US appointment since 1944 and the likelihood of a non-American getting the job is virtually zero. For one thing, the US, European Union and Japan control most of the votes at the World Bank; the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have little influence at the Bank, and the sum total of the developing world’s votes amounts to a paltry 6%. The BRICS control around 30%, while the OECD plus Saudi Arabia have an overwhelming 60%. That’s a majority shareholding in anyone’s language.

Moreover, the EU, Japan and Canada have already indicated support Obama’s candidate. In addition, everyone realizes that a non-American World Bank president would make getting Bank funding through US Congress a veritable minefield. Traditionally, Congress isn’t favourably disposed towards UN agencies in any case, and sending hard-earned US taxpayers’ cash in an age of austerity to countries senators have never heard of isn’t a recipe for success. And if an American isn’t running the World Bank, then why-are-we-doing-this-anyway-goddamit?

Obamaphiles have praised his choice of a Korean-American who has the reputation as the man who ensured millions of HIV sufferers in the developing world received treatment. But not everybody’s happy.

Critics like William Easterley point to Kim’s 2000 book critiquing neoliberalism and its focus upon growth. Over at Reuters, Christopher Swann complains about Jim Kim’s lack of finance and banking credentials – after all, the guy would be running a development bank. Bob Zoellick, although a lawyer by training, did do time as an executive VP of Fannie Mae (not the world’s best-run mortage finance enterprise, admittedly). One long-serving president of the Bank, former US defence secretary Robert McNamara, was a bean-counter before he became President of Ford.

Academics haven’t been kind to Kim either, suggesting he hasn’t even run Dartmouth College particularly well.

But I’m betting it’s a lay-down misère he’ll get the job. Anyone care to wager a fiver?