Both Oars In Not a house call

I enjoy peanuts. I don’t mind sitting in the balcony. And, I don’t mind throwing my two cents into debates where the buy-in is a lot higher than that. So, for the record, I do not support Dr. Jim Yong Kim for president of the World Bank even if he is Mr. Obama’s nominee and the run-away favorite.

Dr. Kim is currently the president of Dartmouth College. He is the first Asian-American to head an Ivy League institution. If elected, he would also be the first physician to lead the World Bank. And, therein lies my concern—he is a physician with no banking or real business experience. He is a global health expert, not an economist or financial expert.    

Traditionally, the World Bank has been led by veteran business leaders, financial experts, or seasoned Washington professionals. Among the list of past presidents are notable former cabinet members Robert McNamara and Paul Wolfowitz and accomplished bankers Alden Clausen and Lewis Preston. The current president is Robert Zoelick, who has been a banker, Deputy Secretary of State and a US Trade Representative.

So, how does an expert in global health get nominated to lead the World Bank?  My best guess is fame and timing. Dr. Kim is well-known in International Aid circles. He is the co-founder of Partners in Health (PIH) and a major player in the World Health Organization. His star has risen with the increased concern over infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. He has even made a bus tour with Bono. In a climate where celebrity means too much, he has it. 

Along with his fame, Dr. Kim has good timing. His nomination fits the current trend to over-emphasize health care in the fight against poverty in the developing world. Regardless of the fact that the primary purpose of the World Bank is economic development and that improved health care is more likely the result than the cause of economic growth, the over-emphasis of health care in development supports Dr. Kim’s candidacy.   

Although Dr. Kim is facing competition, he also has history on his side. The US nominee for the bank presidency has been elected by the World Bank’s Board of Directors without exception since the bank’s inauguration shortly after World War II. However, this history may also hurt Dr. Kim as Washington’s lack of support for a truly democratic election stinks of hypocrisy. 

I also have to wonder how much it will hurt Dr. Kim that he seems to be a bit of a job jumper. It is quite out of the ordinary to take the helm of a major academic institution like Dartmouth and dump it after less than 3 years. This type of calculated careerism is not only unbecoming of a university president, it suggests a lack of regard for institutional stability—a major goal of the World Bank.   

There are precedents for rejecting physicians, who understandably have trouble seeing the forest for the trees, as leaders of large development organizations. In 2009, Dr. Kim’s close colleague and PIH co-founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, was considered, but not selected to head USAID. Given that the World Bank and USAID have similar goals and that Dr. Kim and Dr. Farmer have similar experience and expertise, maybe this needs to be the answer here also.   

My choice for World Bank president is Jose Antonio Ocampo. Dr. Ocampo has a PhD in Economics and several years of experience in finance and development. As the Finance Minister and Central Bank Governor for Colombia, he helped his country advance to a leading role in Latin America. He has also served as the UN Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs. He is the right type of doctor for the job. Afterall, it is not a house call that we are talking about here—it’s a bank.

While neither of the two candidates in the race with Dr. Kim feels confident about winning, both  are sure that they are better qualified. Dr. Ocampo told the New York Times, “I think in terms of development expertise it is quite clear to everyone that the finance minister of Nigeria and myself stand above the US candidate, who has very narrow expertise in development. He is an excellent physician, nobody denies that, but we’re talking about a development institution.”

Yes we are, Dr. Ocampo. 

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