World Bank Selects Another American Leader

Apr 16, 2012
Originally published on April 16, 2012 4:12 pm
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A different process but the same result. Once again, the World Bank has chosen an American as its leader. That's after an effort by developing countries to install one of their own as the bank's president. The bank's executive committee today selected Jim Yong Kim for the job.

NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie is here to discuss the process and the choice of Dr. Kim.

So, John, let's first talk about Dr. Kim and what he brings to the job.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: OK. Well, Jim Yong Kim is a Korean-American, who immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of five. He grew up in Iowa. Most recently, he was president of Dartmouth but he's trained as a medical doctor. And he's had remarkable success running innovative programs, treating infectious disease, including tuberculosis in the developing world. He was director of the World Health Organization HIV/Aids department.

And somewhat surprisingly, he will be the first development professional ever to serve as the head of the World Bank.

CORNISH: So, John, when his name first came up, I remember all the surprise, people talking about this because of that resume you're talking about, public health and academia. And is he someone who people think is qualified to run a massive financing organization?

YDSTIE: Well, it's true, the top job at the World Bank is usually reserved for financiers or economic types or political heavyweights. There have been questions about whether Dr. Kim has the mindset to, quote, "allocate scarce resources" the way a banker or an economist might do and also questions about whether he's got the political skill to get things done at a global institution that has 187 member nations.

But others have praised his qualifications, saying that Dr. Kim's experience makes him ideally suited for the job and that it's time that a development professional lead the world's largest development agency.

CORNISH: Now, as we said earlier, there were other candidates for the job, people who are from developing countries. And there have been calls from those nations about this process to be more open and for the U.S. to give up its grip on the top job. I mean, was this really an open process?

YDSTIE: Well, I think only in a very limited way. Maybe if you call it baby steps in the direction of full and fair competition, but there was, after all, a campaign of sorts. Two highly-qualified candidates - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the finance minister of Nigeria, and Jose Antonio Ocampo, a Columbian economist - both ran for the job. They made their case publicly for the position and, along with Dr. Kim, both had extensive interviews with the World Bank executive board. They both traveled around campaigning for the job, as Dr. Kim did.

In the end, the U.S. candidate prevailed because the U.S. has the greatest number of votes at the World Bank and it also had the support of Europe, which has the second largest block of votes.

CORNISH: But now, you have an American heading the World Bank and a European, Christine Lagarde, running the International Monetary Fund. I mean, does that create tension or frustration for developing nations?

YDSTIE: Well, it does and, in the end, after this process, a number of observers said, you know, it fell short. The South African finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, said that it was great that non-Americans were competing, but he has serious concerns that the decision was made without full transparency.

Certainly, both the U.S. - President Obama, specifically - and Europe have acknowledged that it's time for developing nations, and especially big countries like China and India, to get a shot at these jobs. But domestic politics often intervenes and, in this case, President Obama didn't want to give up the U.S. prerogative to name the head of an important global institution in the middle of a presidential election.

CORNISH: John, thank you.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Audie.

CORNISH: NPR's John Ydstie talking about the World Bank and the man who will be its new president, an American named Jim Yong Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.