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U.S.’s Kim Prevails in First World Bank President Contest

WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2012 (IPS) - Capping an unprecedented multinational contest for the post, the World Bank’s executive board upheld a nearly 70-year tradition Monday by selecting the U.S. candidate, global health expert Jim Yong Kim, to be the Washington-based agency’s next president.

Jim Yong Kim Credit: NIH/public domain

Jim Yong Kim Credit: NIH/public domain

Kim, who will take over from the incumbent, Robert Zoellick, Jul. 1, prevailed over two highly regarded candidates, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and former U.N. under-secretary general for economic and social affairs Jose Antonio Ocampo, a Colombian who also served at the head of his country’s finance, agriculture and planning ministries.

Ocampo had withdrawn from the race last weekend in favour of Okonjo- Iweala, who served as the Bank’s managing director from 2007 to 2011 and enjoyed the support of the African Union (AU) and several emerging countries, notably South Africa and Brazil, as well as more than three dozen former senior Bank officials who signed an open letter on her behalf released here last week.

But that was not enough to overcome the built-in and increasingly criticised voting majority held by the North American, European, and Japanese representatives on the board.

“You know this thing is not really decided on merit,” Okonjo-Iweala told reporters in Nigeria just before the executive board was to convene. “It is voting with political weight and shares, and therefore the United States will get it.”

Similarly, Ocampo, whose candidacy was supported by scores of development economists around the world who are critical of the neoliberal orthodoxy the Bank has championed for most of the past three decades, denounced the selection process as a “political exercise” when he announced his withdrawal.

For their part, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in developing countries welcomed Kim’s selection even as they criticised the process by which he was selected.

“Dr. Kim is an excellent choice for World Bank president and a true development hero,” said Oxfam’s Elizabeth Stuart. “But we’ll never know if he was the best candidate for the job, because there was no true and fair competition. This sham process has damaged the institution and sullied Dr. Kim’s appointment.”

Kim, a South Korean-born medical doctor and anthropologist, will take over an institution that last year lent some 43 billion dollars to middle- and low-income countries around the world and whose private- sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), made another 12 billion dollars in new commitments.

His nomination last month by U.S. President Barack Obama took many experts here by surprise, because, unlike, his predecessor, he lacked experience in finance and managing an organisation as large as the Bank.

Rather, he had distinguished himself as a practitioner of development “in the field”, particularly as co-founder of Partners in Health and later as the department head at the World Health Organisation (WHO) responsible for combating the spread and lethality of HIV/AIDS.

“It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency,” Obama said in announcing Kim’s nomination which was swiftly endorsed by a prominent self-declared candidate, Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, as well as former President Bill Clinton, among others.

For the first time in the Bank’s history, however, Washington’s candidate came under challenge. Okonjo-Iweala, who was nominated by South Africa, and Ocampo, who was nominated by Brazil at the behest of the Dominican Republic, were both considered formidable candidates with broad experience in both economics and managing large national and international institutions.

Despite their qualifications, the contest was never in serious doubt. Under an informal “gentlemen’s agreement” between the U.S. and Europe, a U.S. national has held the top bank position and a European the managing directorship of its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), ever since the two agencies were created at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944.

The challengers’ only hope lay with splitting the European vote. But that possibility was considered highly unlikely due to Washington’s critical support last year for French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn the IMF’s chief.

It was even previewed by the Bank’s policy-making Development Committee which, in a little-noted communiqué after Lagarde’s selection last year, acknowledged noted “the historic parallelism between the selection process of the (World Bank Group) and IMF…” even as it pledged that the process would be “open, merit-based and transparent”.

What followed, however, fell somewhat short of that standard. While Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo actively campaigned for the post in a variety of venues, Kim, invariably accompanied by high-level U.S. Treasury officials, embarked on a “listening tour” of key countries around the world.

While the two non-U.S. candidates appeared before public forums co- sponsored by the Center for Global Development and the Washington Post here last week, for example, Kim stayed away.

The three candidates were interviewed by the executive board on successive days last week, but only their opening statements were publicly released. As to the selection itself, the executive board Monday noted only that “(t)he final nominees received support from different member countries, which reflected the high caliber of the candidates.”

Indeed, the process – and Washington’s insistence that it retain the presidency – could well provoke a backlash from a number of influential quarters.

“While citizens across the world fight cronyism, electoral malpractice and bad governance, we must ensure that our global public institutions set the right example,” Mohammed Ibrahim, the Sudanese- born telecommunications magnate and philanthropist told the Pan- African News Agency (PANA) this weekend. “No one can lecture developing countries on how to manage their processes, public and private sector, if they so brazenly to not conform to the same standards.”

“I think this will give momentum to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in establishing their own BRICS-led, South- South development bank, and also to the new International Development Finance Club (IDFC),” a recently formed group of 19 national and sub- regional development banks, said Nancy Alexander, who directs the economic governance programme of the Heinrich Boell Foundation here.

“What we’ll see is a combination of the World Bank programmatically bowing to the desires of the emerging markets, but, at the same time, emerging market countries getting very frustrated by the Bank’s politics and increasingly having plenty of money to go off and do their own thing,” she told IPS.

She expressed some sympathy for Obama’s efforts to push through a U.S. candidate, because “if he wanted to get the money for the Bank from Congress, he had to propose a U.S. candidate. But that will create a major diversification away from the Bank.”

Other development campaigners expressed mixed views about Kim and the selection process.

“Dr. Kim is a very good man, but I am concerned about his management abilities,” said Jo Marie Griesgraber, head of New Rules for Global Finance. “I’m delighted there were three candidates. Maybe next time, the Europeans will lead an inclusive and transparent process in the selection of IMF’s managing director.”

Global-health advocates and some development economists have expressed strong support for Kim.

“He has the potential to transform one of the world’s most fraught institutions – to challenge failed orthodox thinking on global development that prescribes austerity, privatisation, and indebtedness for impoverished countries,” said Amanda Lugg, chairperson of Health GAP (Global Access Project).

“Instead, the globe needs a World Bank focused on results for people – using expansionary approaches to macroeconomics and delivering health, education, infrastructure, and employment at the community level.”

“He’ll have battles ahead with the Board of Directors, against Washington and its allies,” said MarkWeisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research here. “But I would bet he will have some significant accomplishments show by the end of his term.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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