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Alex Cobham

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A Cautious Celebration for Kim

Posted: 05/08/2012 1:08 pm

Now the dust has settled, let's celebrate the race for the World Bank presidency. We had the highest quality field in history, a debate that focused on views of development and relative expertise, and a winner who just might manage to refocus the institution on the dominant challenge of development today: inequality.

For the first time ever we knew before the vote that the next president would be a development expert. Indeed, we knew before the vote that for the first time ever, the next president would be a development expert.

So let's not damn the new World Bank president Jim Yong Kim by association with the illegitimate, anachronistic process that put him there. Let's not linger, right now, on the lack of a fair vote between countries for leadership of either the Bank or the IMF. Let's not ask again, at least until tomorrow, how the bilateral donors of Europe and US can square their lock on these roles with their increasing emphasis on transparency and accountability.

Let's celebrate, and look forward.

The development blog-n-twittosphere frequently splits along predictable lines, into rather comfortable, low-level conflicts -- how often, for example, are you surprised by your preferred commentators' views on an aid issue? Every now and then, however, there arises a question that divides people in a more interesting way. The selection of the 18th World Bank president has been one of these.

As the Centre for Global Development's Justin Sandefur tweeted, "strange bedfellows: free-market economists 4 3rd world democracy vs pub health humanitarians 4 US imperialism?" Which is to say, how odd to find the former group using the Bank's governance weaknesses to justify their preference for an economist, while the latter more happily accepted the process flaws in this instance because they liked the outcome.

The debate was complex and development-focused because non-US candidates of the utmost quality were willing to put themselves forward -- Jose Antonio Ocampo, who is almost uniquely well qualified in terms of combining economics expertise at the highest level with senior political experience and leadership at development institutions; and Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, who scores pretty well on each of these too as well as having senior Bank experience. Not only this, but countries have actually been willing to publicly back both so that just for a brief moment, it felt that Kim was not a 100% cert.

A major part of the debate was over whether Kim is actually a development expert, when he's a public health specialist rather than an economist. Among development economists, there has been a resistance to the idea of a non-economist despite the fact that the history of presidents, better and worse, is largely untroubled by the economics profession.

The nomination was "an embarrassment to the US," said ex-World Bank staffer and Harvard professor Lant Pritchett. This was because Kim engaged not in development (which is "countries becoming prosperous, democratic and capable") but in charity work ("helping people cope with the fact that they live in places where they don't have those things").

Columbia professor Jagdish Bhagwati wrote a public letter which questioned Kim's credentials as an American, and labelled him "another agreeable Korean -- Ban Ki-Moon is another one." The substance of Bhagwati's complaint seemed to be that by choosing a health specialist to lead the World Bank, having already done so with Rajiv Shah at USAID, the White House revealed a view of development based on projects and a failure to appreciate the more important macro issues such as trade.

By the close, however, there were high-profile defenders too, such as former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson, who called Kim 'brilliant.' And reading back through some of Kim's publications, not least the 2001 co-edited volume Dying for Growth, which has caused some of the opposition, it is abundantly clear that Kim's view of development is not about charity work or projects but major, structural change.

This is what was so positive about the process this time round -- that, like the candidates, the arguments were (largely) about development itself. Kim is associated with a passion for social justice, and is likely to bring that focus to the organization. As his acceptance remarks showed, Kim is clear on the importance of market-based growth as a priority in the face of the crisis. At the same time, however, the official statement is addressed so powerfully to the 'excluded,' and the 'injustice and indignity' they face, that Kim does not sound like a man who will fall into the trap of letting growth become the goal instead of one instrument among many.

Ocampo's insights, not least long championing the importance of counter-cyclical capital market regulation, will not be lost -- but it would have been great to see them moving the Bank. Ngozi's passionate clarity about illicit financial flows and tax dodging as major impediments to development will not be lost either -- but it would have been great to see it moving the Bank.

Finally, Kim's acute recognition of the damage that inequality does to people and to societies will not be lost -- and it will be fascinating to see it move the Bank. A hashtag for that, you ask? #BringKimOn.

 

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