Why Jim Young Kim was the more radical choice for World Bank President



GABORONE, BOTSWANA. While I am an American, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that it is inappropriate for the United States to have a strangle hold on the World Bank Presidency. I also sympathize with the frustrations of many Africans that one of their own, highly qualified Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was not selected for the post. That said, the Korean-American nominee, Dr. Jim Young Kim, was the more radical choice in this instance.

Other than Jim Young Kim, the other two leading nominees for the post of World Bank President, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, were both economists. Having worked for the World Bank for a short time in the early 1990s (the heyday of structural adjustment), I quickly came to learn that this was an institution dominated by economists. The supremacy of economic thinking within the World Bank has been reflected in its leadership. In the near 70 year history of the institution, its presidents have almost always been economists, bankers or lawyers. The second most powerful person at the Bank is the Chief Economist which, as the name suggests, is always an economist.

The Need for Disciplinary Pluralism in Development Institutions
While I have nothing against economists, and the World Bank is a ‘Bank”, it is also a development institution. As such, the world’s most powerful development agency has often suffered from rather reductionist and narrow thinking on its approaches to poverty alleviation and improving human welfare. It is for this reason that JimYoung Kim, who holds a PhD in anthropology and is trained as a medical doctor, is the really ground breaking choice for the presidency of the World Bank.

While Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Jose Antonio Ocampo would have brought the perspective of those born and raised in the Global South, their training as economists would have allowed them to fit in easily with the economistic framing of development questions which pervades at the Bank. While it would have been a symbolic victory for the world had one of them won, a highly doubt this would have produced a significant shift in the approach of the institution.

As medical doctor and an anthropologist who has a long history of working on development questions (from the grass roots to the policy level), Jim Young Kim is much more likely to question the status quo thinking at the World Bank and to bring a fresh perspective to the many development questions this institution seeks to tackle. It is Kim’s different disciplinary perspective which is truly revolutionary because it could de- stabilize the dominance of economics on development policy thinking in the Anglo-American world.

Of course, it is also not lost on me that Obama’s father was an African economist while his mother was a development anthropologist who long worked in Asia. It’s anyone’s guess, but I’ve got to believe that Obama would have absorbed some of his mother’s thinking on development questions, and the need for greater disciplinary pluralism in the world’s major development institutions.

The President’s father may yet win round two of this affair as a second term Barack Obama facing lower election stakes, and increasing world pressure, will be much more open to making compromises on US hegemony in world affairs.

The Need for Formal Reform of the Selection Process
Moving forward, a necessary and important step will be formal reform of the way presidents are selected at the IMF and World Bank (breaking the European lock on the IMF and the American grip on the World Bank). Doing this well in advance of the next round of appointments will help clearly separate debates about what has been an inherently unfair selection process from discussions about the merits of individual candidates.

William G. Moseley is Professor of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN USA and, currently, Visiting Scholar in the Department of Environmental Science, University of Botswana, Gaborone.