Critics question why American must lead World Bank

President Barack Obama stands with Jim Yong Kim, his nominee to be the next World Bank President, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 23, 2012. Kim is currently the president of Dartmouth College.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

(MoneyWatch) President Obama's nomination of Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank is a surprise in that the White House is backing a physician whose career has been spent working on global health issues. Past leaders of the international financial body have all had backgrounds in politics or finance. Yet in another respect the administration is hewing to what some critics say is an outdated tradition -- Kim is American.

Since its founding in 1944, the World Bank always has been headed by an American. Developing countries have long sought to gain more power in the World Bank as well as its sister lending organization, the International Monetary Fund, which always has been headed by a European.

Obama taps Jim Yong Kim for World Bank post

Simon Johnson, a professor of economics at MIT Sloan School of Management and the former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, said the White House's move to support a specialist in global health issues is "very clever politically," adding that Kim has strong credentials to lead the World Bank. Yet Johnson also characterized the administration's choice to nominate an American as an "unfortunate anachronism."

"The White House wants to keep the job for an American," he said. "I think that's a mistake personally, mostly because it implies that the IMF job will be kept by a European. You can't break the duopoly unless somebody goes first... . It's a holdover form the 1950s. There's nothing written down that says that the World Bank should go to an American and that the IMF should go to a European."

Currently president of Dartmouth College, Kim is a medical doctor with extensive experience in fighting diseases such as HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis in developing countries. This experience is expected to deflect criticism from countries that have put forward their own nominees to head the World Bank and that have previously questioned the convention of putting an American at the helm.

"Jim has truly global experience," Obama said on Friday in backing Kim for the post. "He has worked from Asia to Africa to the Americas, from capitals to small villages. His personal story exemplifies the great diversity to our country."

The bank's mission is to promote economic development and health in poorer nations. The bank is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and since it was founded all 11 of its presidents have been American. Current president Robert Zoellick, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, announced in February that he was stepping down.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think-tank, praised Obama's nomination of Kim. "This is a huge step forward," Weisbrot said in a statement, highlighting Kim's work to co-found global health advocacy organization Partners in Health. "If Kim becomes World Bank president, he'll be the first qualified president in 68 years. Kim's nomination is a victory for all the people, organizations, and governments that stood up to the Obama administration and demanded an open, merit-based process."

Although many Americans may be only vaguely familiar with the World Bank's activities, the institution is vitally important for poorer countries. "That's one reason why the White House has traditionally had some space to put in almost anybody it wants to in that job," Johnson said. "You don't get much blowback from Congress or anywhere else. But it matters a lot to the world. It's real money, and it means millions of people living better or worse if the World Bank does a better or worse job."

The 52-year-old Kim was born in Korea and raised in Muscatine, Iowa. In his youth, he dreamed of playing in the NBA. Kim mockingly told Forbes magazine, this was "a very rational choice for a 5-foot, 10-inch Korean kid from Iowa." It was not entirely irrational, however. In high school Kim was quarterback of the football team and the basketball's team starting point guard.

He has an undergraduate degree from Brown University and holds both a medical degree and a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard. He is well known for his work in improving health care in impoverished nations. Before being named Dartmouth president in July 2009, he co-founded the global health organization Partners in Health and was director of the World Health Organization's department of HIV/AIDS. There he spearheaded an initiative to treat 3 million patients with HIV.

In addition to his academic and athletic credentials, Kim has skills that are less commonly found on World Bank presidents' resumes. Below, Kim performs part of a Black Eyed Peas' song, "The Time (Dirty Bit)" (skip to 1:05 to see him in action). In the second video, he joins the zombies on stage in Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

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