Why Jim Yong Kim would make a great World Bank president | Heather Hurlburt


Obama’s pick from outside the Wall Street club is an innovator capable of reinventing the bank’s role in global finance

The early, breathless tweeting that President Obama’s nominee for the World Bank is “not a Washington insider” and “a friend of Tim Geithner” are totally missing the point. Jim Yong Kim is a path-breaking nominee not for those reasons, but because he is an advocate, a development professional and a Generation Xer who spent his earliest years in a war-torn, developing country.

How unusual is this resume? If selected, Kim would be only the third of 12 World Bank presidents with no banking experience. (Barber Conable and Paul Wolfowitz being the other two.) He would be the first non-Caucasian, and the first to have be born and lived in a poor, war-torn society. (James Wolfensohn was born and grew up in Australia.) He would be the first to have worked in an international organization and the first to have run a non-profit advocacy organization.
 
As an advocate, he rode a bus across the midwest with Bono and two dozen African child singers to draw attention to HIV/Aids, which is when I met him in 2002. As we spent time talking to truckers, students and evangelical Christians about HIV/Aids, he displayed all the commitment and public affairs savvy of an advocate and none of the stereotypical out-of-touch-ness of a banker or medical expert. Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains documents how he co-led the mold-breaking NGO innovation of Partners in Health, together with the more famous (but managerially-challenged) Paul Farmer.

Since the World Bank’s founding, it has been thought that close ties to rich-country bankers and capital markets was a key qualification. Instead, Kim is a medical doctor who has specialized in developing-country health issues, treating drug-resistant TB, expanding access to treatment for HIV, and focusing on public-health concerns globally and in the US.

In recent weeks, developing-country leaders and advocates have spoken out strongly about the need for a World Bank president who can transform the bank to face 21st-century challenges – and who sees the world from a perspective beyond Washington. Kim is a veteran of the international development bureaucracy with which he will have to partner, and which numerous voices have pointed out needs to be utterly transformed from its 20th-century, cold war roots.

Developing-country leaders have also pushed for broadening out the experience and viewpoints of those who lead the bank: 10 white American men and one white Australian-born man up to now. Kim is a naturalized US citizen who was born in Korea. Not the democratic Asian tiger Americans think of today, but a poor, war-torn, autocratic, but striving country. The kind of nation, in fact, that forms much of the bank’s clientele, and the world’s worry list, now.

Finally, with regard to the gasping about Kim being “not a Washington insider”, he has years of administrative experience managing finicky, self-proclaimed geniuses whose knowledge is highly-specialized and not always relevant to the real world – and who are very difficult to fire. (Yes, Ivy Leaguers, I’m looking at you.)

What does all this mean? I would draw three lessons. 

First, this is the Obama administration making its bid to transform, not just manage, the international scene. That will be difficult; it will have to be done consensually; and the US has less influence than it used to. By putting someone in a top job who has shown he can innovate and think outside existing structures for development partnership; who understands and can use the forces of public opinion, the media and entertainment; and who has a perspective that goes beyond the Ivy League, Wall Street and the Beltway; Obama is setting the stage for change, as best he can.

Second, this is an evocative moment to take the World Bank out of the hands of career financiers. It does raise the question, however, of how for-profit finance and development-for-development’s sake can build new and effective ties. Kim, or whoever gets the post, will need strong advice, a close partnership with the IMF’s Christine LaGarde, and a global financial establishment that is ready to think expansively and differently about the relationship between bottom lines, stock numbers and human well-being.

Finally, Barack Obama is slowly but surely re-making the national security establishment in his own image: post-1955 late boomers – or “Gen Xers” – with unimpeachable credentials but non-traditional backgrounds, such as Susan Rice, Michele Flournoy, Tammy Duckworth, Jane Holl Lute, Jeh Johnson, Harold Koh, and dozens of men and women at the levels below them who were shaped by the same forces that have oriented our globalized world in very different ways from the generation before them. These are Kim’s crowd and they will be having impact on our foreign policy, and our international institutions, for decades to come.

guardian.co.uk

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