Last week, President Obama nominated Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim to serve as the next president of the World Bank. (The United States de facto holds the World Bank’s presidency, while Europe gets the International Monetary Fund’s.) Jim Yong Kim has an impressive résumé. He has been one of the world’s pioneers in the field of global health. As an accomplished academic, winner of a MacArthur grant, the head of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS program, and a cofounder of Partners in Health, a global NGO, he has devoted his career to saving lives with incredible effectiveness and creativity. (He also taught me in a superb class in college.) In particular, his work against tuberculosis with Partners in Health has at the very least saved thousands of lives, and has helped lead to a reexamination of a lot of global health policy.
But what would an M.D. and social anthropologist be doing running the World Bank? Yes, the Bank, unlike the IMF, is exclusively concerned with the developing world, obviously an area of Kim’s expertise: The institution provides low- and middle-income countries with financial support, whether loans, grants, or guarantees, and with development advice and policy prescriptions.
But for better or for worse, despite its efforts in human development, good governance, and so on, the Bank is primarily concerned with one development strategy, which also happens to be the most effective: economic growth.
Unfortunately, as a variety of sources have noted recently, Kim is at odds with Bank policies, questions whether GDP growth makes life better for the poorest people, and actually edited a growth-skeptic book entitled Dying for Growth.
From that work’s introduction, the Financial Times has pulled out one priceless line: “The studies in this book present evidence that the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.” That is, policies like the World Bank’s aren’t just too focused on economic matters; they actually have a net detrimental effect on the world.
Some have defended Kim’s statements about the relationship between economic growth, inequality, and health, suggesting that he merely embraces a more holistic view of development. If you accept that, then you could argue that he brings valuable, original insight and will enhance the quality of the World Bank’s work, and you needn’t worry that he has some concerns about the side effects of economic growth.
But even if Kim is fundamentally committed to growth and merely offers social critiques, he is probably still not the right choice, because his priorities and expertise clearly lie elsewhere. There is a role for people and organizations who take a rights-based or health-oriented approach to development (indeed, Kim has succeeded spectacularly in such roles so far in his life). But it isn’t the one that the World Bank has traditionally occupied — that is, encouraging and supporting policies almost entirely on the criteria of economic growth and fiscal responsibility.
In fact, the Left, and some development scholars like Kim, have long objected to the World Bank’s policies for just that reason. Most obviously, in exchange for the financing that developing countries need but can’t get on the private bond market, the World Bank (and the IMF, in different situations) has enforced rigorous austerity measures on poor countries’ governments. Not least thanks to the malevolence of some of these governments, the spending cuts were applied to social services, including education and public health. So-called “structural adjustment” policies have long been demonized as inhumane, neo-colonial, or worse (and have now been replaced, though not fundamentally altered, really, by “poverty-reduction strategy papers”).
But while many other international organizations, to their credit, concerned themselves with humanitarian support (as Kim has in his laudable career), international financial institutions have doggedly pursued growth-oriented policies, which involved not just structural adjustment, but also significant efforts at liberalizing and privatizing economies.
And they have succeeded spectacularly. Economies across Latin America, Africa, and Asia have boomed, to varying degrees, over the past two decades. Plenty of other factors have helped, but the developing world’s economic dynamism and the humanitarian dividends it has paid are due in large part to World Bank policies that Kim has relentlessly critiqued.
There’s a place for these critiques, and in a liberal administration, there might be a place for their proponent – as, say, the head of USAID. President Obama’s appointment for that position, Jim Yong Kim’s career partner, another humanitarian hero, Paul Farmer, was rejected in 2009 — but that is no excuse for this nomination.
The U.S. should not recommend a man to run the World Bank who is skeptical about both its mission and its policies. In doing so, we actually risk losing the U.S.’s prerogative of choosing the Bank’s president. The booming Global South, not yet tired of this economic-growth stuff, has nominated the right woman for the job, Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Anti-colonialism, it seems, may have gotten the better of this administration.
— Patrick Brennan is the William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.