Surprising choice for World Bank

U.S. President Barack Obama has named Dr. Jim Yong Kim as his nominee to lead the World Bank. In the past, that would have been the end of the process — Washington spoke and the bank complied. It is still probable that Mr. Kim will assume the post in June when it becomes vacant, but old certainties are eroding.

That is a good thing. The idea of such a prominent post being a U.S. sinecure is quaint and outdated. More importantly, it does not guarantee that the best person gets the job. And for a position as important as World Bank president, nothing is more important.

The World Bank was set up, along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in the frenzy of international institution building toward the end of World War II. Historically, an American has always headed the bank, while a European occupied the top post at the IMF. That practice has come under criticism in recent years as other countries challenge the award of the post on the basis of nationality and as those other governments take an increasingly significant stake in how those organizations are run.

This dispute has been simmering for a while and finally boiled over last year when Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was forced to step down as head of the IMF following a scandal. Developing countries demanded a reconsideration of the selection process; ultimately, however, the old order prevailed and former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde took the job — with U.S. support.

The battle was expected to be renewed when the current World Bank head, Mr. Robert Zoellick, ends his five-year term. There were hopes that Mr. Obama — in his pursuit of change — might upend the selection process, but he stuck with the old formula. Although Mr. Kim is not the usual nominee.

Dr. Kim is the current president of Dartmouth College, a prestigious institution of higher learning, and an expert on global health. An anthropologist and physician, he cofounded Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization that provides health care for the poor. He also is a former director of the department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization. It is this history as a practitioner — a development professional — that distinguishes Dr. Kim from his predecessors as well as from other individuals who have been nominated to succeed Mr. Zoellick.

It is a smart call. Mr. Obama explained his selection of Dr. Kim: “The leader of the World Bank should have a deep understanding of both the role that development plays in the world and the importance of creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed. It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”

The fact that Dr. Kim was born in South Korea (he moved to the United States with his family at the age of 5) and has spent considerable time working in developing countries to fight disease also helps insulate him from charges of nationalist bias.

His selection is likely, but not assured. The president is selected by the World Bank’s 25-member executive board. The U.S. is the largest donor to the organization and has the largest share of votes on the board — about 16 percent. Another nominee is Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, backed by Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. Colombia has put forward Mr. José Antonio Ocampo, a former finance minister and a U.N. official.

If other board members can unite around a single candidate, Dr. Kim might be in trouble. But thus far, the emerging economies have proven unable to find common ground. They are divided by the reluctance to back a candidate who is not from their own country as well as by concern about antagonizing Washington.

Some questions remain, however. While the World Bank is a development organization that includes the provision of health care within its mandate, it is still a bank. As of today, its primary focus is economics, and it is not clear how well Dr. Kim’s background will serve him as he tries to run a bank. Equally significant, the World Bank is changing. Many of the recipients of its aid — it provided $57.4 billion in support to low-income and middle-income countries last year — are “graduating.” According to one estimate, the bank will lose more than half its traditional clients.

How will Dr. Kim adjust the bank’s operating procedures to remain relevant to these countries? Equally important, how will the bank address the problems among the remaining “hard core” of underdeveloped countries it must service?

These are difficult questions, made even more challenging by the dual needs to run a huge bureaucracy of over 10,000 employees, more than a third of whom serve overseas, and keep the executive board happy. While the head of the World Bank is a prestigious post, the president, like all other heads of international organizations, has very little power and ultimately serves at the whim of its members. It is a job that requires tact and diplomacy both for internal and external audiences.

If done properly, it is an opportunity to accomplish extraordinary things and make a real difference in the lives of billions of people. It is too important a post to reserve for someone merely on the basis of the issuer of his or her passport. Dr. Kim may be the best person for the job but he should be selected on merit, not because of his citizenship.