Obama’s Odd Choice for World Bank President

Jim Yong Kim is an impressive man. But he's got no background in banking, finance, or economics.

President Obama surprised just about everyone with his choice of Jim Yong Kim for the World Bank. While Kim’s an impressive man, indeed, it’s a very strange choice.

LAT (“Obama nominates Dartmouth’s Jim Yong Kim to be World Bank chief“):

President Obama on Friday nominated Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, a physician and anthropologist by training, to succeed Robert Zoellick as the next president of the World Bank.

The naming of Kim was seen as a surprise. Kim, 52, though highly regarded for his leadership in global health issues, is not well known in political or financial circles. But the appointment of the South Korean-born Kim may also deflect criticisms from developing economies of the United States having a lock on the World Bank’s top position.

Kim, president of Dartmouth since 2009, was the former director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/Aids department. Kim moved with his family to the United States at age 5 and grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, according to his biography posted in Dartmouth’s website. He graduated from Brown University and received his medical degree from Harvard.

ThinkProgress has a nice roundup titled “Meet Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s Pick To Head The World Bank.” Among the notable points:

– He’s currently president of Dartmouth College, the first physician to hold that position and the first Asian-American to lead an Ivy League college.

– Kim co-founded the Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit that focused on drug-resistant tuberculosis and helped drive down the cost of medication so that treatment could be widely available.

– He is also a former director of the Department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization (WHO).

– Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1959, but grew up in Muscatine, Iowa after his family moved when he was 5. He earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical Scool in 1991 and a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University in 1993.

– He is critical of pharmaceutical patents, telling Financial Times in 2006, “The pharmaceutical companies are saying it would be better for countries to use their discounted price schemes. But we’re already hitting supply problems, while demand for the drugs is growing steadily.”

– He replicated Paul Farmer’s model of how to treat tuberculosis (TB) patients in Haiti. Through his research on how to most effectively treat patients with drug-resistant TB in developing nations, Kim trained hundreds of community health workers to deliver drugs to patients’ homes.

– His project achieved cure rates of more than 80 percent — better than many U.S. hospitals — and he pushed drug makers to produce the necessary antibiotics less expensively.

– He won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2003.

So, again, quite impressive. But what has any of this to do with, well, running a bank?

Brad Plummer, writing for Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog, examines “The pros and cons of having a doctor run the World Bank.”

Development experts see real pros and cons to the move. Public health is a huge part of development — in recent years, lot of money has gone into fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS. Yet it’s not necessarily the World Bank’s specialty, says Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Their strength is in financial management, infrastructure, even agriculture,” Moss says. The World Bank, which provides low-interest loans to developing countries, has actually been shifting away from health in recent years, ceding a lot of HIV/AIDS work to well-funded nonprofits like the Gates Foundation. (That said, the bank’s still a major source of anti-malaria funding.)

Could Kim change that and push the World Bank back toward public health? Moss says that’s not a given. Much of the World Bank’s agenda is set by its 187 shareholder countries. A president can influence that agenda — the previous president, Robert Zoellick, nudged the bank to focus more on tourism development — but mainly at the margins. And the United States, which has a major voice in the bank, may not want to see such a shift. “The United States loves to invest in public health,” Moss says. “But we already have PEPFAR [the government’s AIDS relief program], and the U.S. Agency for International Development is already health-dominated. I’m not sure whether the Treasury Department would want the World Bank to move back into health as well.”

Meanwhile, William Easterly, a former World Bank economist and professor at New York University, worries about the pitfalls of having a doctor at the head of the World Bank, rather than someone more economics-oriented. “As president, you’re fundamentally making decisions that are guided by economics,” he says. “You’re trying to divvy up scarce funds and focus on the world’s most pressing needs.”

This is true even in public health, Easterly notes. Economists have found that certain treatments — such as oral rehydration for babies with diarrhea — are terrific bargains, while other investments in antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS may not have as great a payoff. “You have to have the mind-set to allocate scarce funds, rather than approaching the problem as if we have unlimited resources for suffering people,” he says. And Easterly worries that too many doctors and public health experts, in his experience, are resistant to this approach. “Frankly,” he adds, “I see some danger signs in this kind of pick.”

Even if Kim were radically successful in reshaping the World Bank into a public health institution, why in the world would we want to do that? We’ve already got the World Health Organization and a plethora of other organizations with that portfolio. Kim’s a brilliant fellow and, one imagines, a very successful leader. Maybe he can stretch his talents and be an outstanding head banker. But aren’t there some really brilliant people out there with, say, backgrounds in economics, finance, banking, or actually related fields?

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eric says:

    I wonder if Kim was up to it when the White House asked him about the position. I mean, knowing what and how he deals with his own work (in a certain field unrelated to the position). I’m thinking that the White House did some persuading to Kim, which seems that Obama wants him for a particular reason.

  2. Moderate Mom says:

    He must be an Obama bundler. 😉

  3. mike says:

    Does he at least pay his taxes? That would be a nice change.

  4. Herb says:

    Not sure about Kim, but can’t get too critical after Wolfowitz already lowered the bar.

  5. dude says:

    world banks focuses overwhelmingly on poverty…

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Moderate Mom:

    He must be an Obama bundler. 😉

    At least a Manchurian candidate.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: Actually a fair point. Wolfowitz’ PhD is in political science with a national security bent and most of his career has been in that field. The advantage he has over Kim is more experience heading up large, contentious bureaucracies. But, certainly, his tenure wasn’t anything to write home about.

  8. sam says:

    I dunno. Given the mess “professional” bankers have made of the world’s economy, maybe this isn’t such a bad appointment.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    Yong Kim has spent years (decades?) working with developing nations. It seems to me that experience is more valuable, especially to the developing nations, than any sort of banking experience.
    The guy he will replace, Zoellick, was one of the mis-guided folks who signed the letter to Clinton from PNAC that was the basis for the Iraq invasion and occupation.
    http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm
    Of course Wolfie was too.
    Given that duo…pretty much anyone would be a better choice.

  10. Hey Norm says:

    @ Hey Norm…
    My guess is thet the World Bank has plenty of pencil necked bankers in their buracracy.

  11. Gromitt Gunn says:

    My guess is that it was a deliberate choice to go with someone with a history of effective programming in the developing world versus a “fat cat” banker type.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    As relates to policy, it doesn’t much matter who becomes president of the World Bank. To be blunt, it’s a post for CV building and making the necessary international connections with which one enriches one’s self after leaving the job. Central Banks control the policy details, particularly the Federal Reserve and the ECB, with a neo-liberal bent toward siphoning as much money from the world’s poor as possible. The bank has never been anything but a tool for increasing multi-national profits.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    Even Sachs, who openly campaigned for the job, said it should be filled by a development expert…and now supports the Kim nomination “100%”.

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, affirmative action feels good in academic circles, but usually it fails miserably in the real world. This nomination is loopy even by Van Jones and Steven Chu standards.

    Incidentally, regarding the inevitable and hackneyed Wolfowitz analogies, there’s a big difference between being 2nd in command of the Pentagon — one of the largest and most important bureaucracies in the world — and running a small college in a small state.

    That all said, I’m all about trying to bring in different sets of experiences from different fields in order to make for better governments. But if we want someone with a medical background to lead the World Bank why not tap someone like Bill Frist? Frist was a practicing surgeon and he also ran the U.S. Senate for a few years. If we really want someone with a healthcare background why not name Mike Leavitt to this post? Leavitt ran HHS and also for a decade was a state governor. Leavitt also ran the EPA. No offense to Ivy Leaguers, but running two cabinet-level departments and an entire state is a tad more impressive than running Dartmouth.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Well, affirmative action feels good in academic circles, but usually it fails miserably in the real world. This nomination is loopy even by Van Jones and Steven Chu standards.

    Oh yes, of course, because unless a position is filled by a white male, any other hire is considered an “affirmative action” choice…

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Incidentally, regarding the inevitable and hackneyed Wolfowitz analogies, there’s a big difference between being 2nd in command of the Pentagon

    Yep and he completely screwed it up.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Incidentally, regarding the inevitable and hackneyed Wolfowitz analogies, there’s a big difference between being 2nd in command of the Pentagon

    He was then effectively forced out of the World Bank for corruption. A great role model you got there Nick.

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    with a neo-liberal bent toward siphoning as much money from the world’s poor as possible.

    Here we go again. Most but not all the tin hat wearers are on the right.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    “…there’s a big difference between being 2nd in command of the Pentagon…”
    That fool helped give us the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should not be 2nd in command to a Moped.

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Wolfowitz was using bank money to give large salaries to his girlfriend. What was that you were saying about affirmative action?

  21. Ben Wolf says:

    The document revealed that the lack of safeguards at IDA rises to the level of a “material weakness,” the most serious of financial accounting failings. The finding, reached by the IEG together with an international advisory panel that included independent auditors from Australia, Norway, and India, was released to the public only after a pitched and protracted battle with the Bank’s management — which fought mightily to avoid disclosure.

    http://www.fpif.org/reports/world_bank_corruption

    There’s lots more: the loss of $150 – $180 billion to corruption, payoffs by multinationals to back pet projects, bribery, the usual stuff.

  22. rudderpedals says:

    I just don’t have a problem with this. Hopefully the trend will continue elsewhere, like Treasury. It’d be good if we can avoid yet another GS alumni running that show.

  23. Dr. Dom says:

    Besides advancing the Obama ideology of public health as a force for social control, even more importantly for Obama this move also has the even more appealing enticement of furthering his ongoing efforts to divide the American Catholic Church, which includes highlighting divisions already found therein.

    It seems that Kim’s group (“Partners in Health”) recently received kudos at Notre Dame (it doesn’t get any better than that for fomenting division and fractiousness among Catholics) for precisely the social welfare approach increasingly criticized in Rome for its disregard for fundamental principles governing marriage and the family, as reported in an elegant commentary by a concerned Catholic observer of Notre Dame: “The Kellogg Institute’s Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity recently honored Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit organization whose healthcare initiatives include the distribution of contraceptives.”

    wwww.irishrover.net/archives/1070

    Divide and conquer, they say, and that is precisely what he is doing.

    Dominic M. Pedulla MD, FACC, CNFPMC, ABVM, ACPh
    The Edith Stein Foudation

  24. Delmar says:

    The U.S. should not be a member or involved in any of these “world” organizations that are mainly socialist/marxist fronts: UN, WHO, World Bank, or other. We see what a disaster the UN can be. These organizations have a one world government agenda: obvious to anyone.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    @Delmar: Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush were socialists? Who knew?

  26. Ben Wolf says:

    @rudderpedals: Jim Yong Kim is actually a pretty good guy who actually cares about the plight of the poor, he just won’t be able to accomplish much because the machinery will be working against him. He’s certainly a far superior choice than Lawrence Summers, who stands in the ranks of the world’s stupidest economists.

  27. sam says:

    @Dr. DeLuise:

    Divide and conquer, they say, and that is precisely what he is doing.

    Very troll, Doc, very troll.

  28. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    than Lawrence Summers, who stands in the ranks of the world’s stupidest economists

    What you mean is that emotionally you don’t like or agree with him. He’s certainly not one of the world’s stupidest economists. And professionally he’d have you for breakfast, and me for that matter. Economics is not a morality play where you get to play Jiminy Cricket. Summers would have been an excellent choice but has I’m sure been passed over not on grounds of technical proficiency but on political and presentational ones.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    It is hardly surprising that someone who is a part of this extremist organization would be making the specious argument that the President is supposedly trying to cause harm to the Catholic Church…

  30. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Ben Wolf: Wolfowitz was using bank money to give large salaries to his girlfriend. What was that you were saying about affirmative action?

    Let’s just look that one up, shall we?

    1) Wolfowitz’s relationship with Shaha Razi predated either’s employment with the World Bank.

    2) Wolfowitiz fully disclosed the relationship prior to his appointment, and arranged for her to be as removed from his supervision — direct or indirect — as possible. She was even “loaned out” from the World Bank — disrupting her career — during his tenure.

    3) Career bank officials insisted that Wolfowitz sign off on her compensation package, after he tried to recuse himself from any and all matters related to her.

    4) Career bank employees — unhappy at Wolfowitz’ attempts to reform the institution — then used his signing off (at their insistence!) as “proof” he was engaging in nepotism.

    Wolfowitz was railroaded.

    Now for the inevitable “but he deserved it because of BUSH IRAQ!!!!” responses…

  31. @Ben Wolf, @Brummagem Joe:

    Related: The (Many) Things Macroeconomists Don’t Know

    What [former European Central Bank president] Trichet said was that state-of-the-art macroeconomic theory was almost entirely useless in dealing with the crisis that began in 2007. Yeah, he tried to be polite about it: “This doesn’t mean we have to abandon DSGE,” he said, referring to the dynamic-stochastic general equilibrium models — in which an economy of rational, far-seeing actors struggles with the occasional friction or shock, but generally gets along okay — that dominated the work of economists at central banks. Buuut “atomistic rational agents [the figures that populate DSGE models] don’t capture behavior during a crisis.” Another quote: “Rational expectations theory has brought macroeconomics a long way … but there is a clear case to reexamine the assumptions.” And neither of these approaches leaves room for the possibility that financial market fluctuations could be the source of problems for the real economy.

    Macro is a smoking ruin. It’s probably a mistake to look for bearers of light and truth. Far better to glean insights but to expect little more.

  32. Ann Molison says:

    All you have to do to understand Dr. Kim is to understand the values of those who are involved with Partners for Health. Read “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Stan Kidder – and you’ll understand Kim and realize this is an ideal pick for the head of the World Bank’s whose job it is to funnel money to countries in this world who have desperate poverty and thus horrible disease inflicting it’s citizens. I am very excited about this choice. This man has both a heart and a brain.

  33. rudderpedals says:

    @Ben Wolf: Yes, I agree

  34. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Next time, you could just link to an old post of yours instead of having to go to all that trouble to rewrite it.

  35. Brummagem Joe says:

    @john personna:

    Macro is a smoking ruin. It’s probably a mistake to look for bearers of light and truth. Far better to glean insights but to expect little more.

    Yes glasshopper.