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Race for World Bank job

Apr 05 2012 07:38 *Felix Salmon

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IF YOU want to get a great feel for the difference between Jim Yong Kim and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, just check out what they've said in public about what they want to do with the presidency of the World Bank.

Here's Kim:

"We live in a time of historic opportunity... We can imagine a world in which billions of people in developing countries enjoy increases in their incomes and living standards...

"My own life and work have led me to believe that inclusive development - investing in human beings - is an economic and moral imperative... economic growth is vital to generate resources... for change to happen, we need partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society to build systems that can deliver sustainable, scalable solutions... we must draw on ideas and experience from around the globe...

"A more responsive World Bank must meet the challenges of the moment but also foresee those of the future. The World Bank serves all countries... I will ensure that the World Bank provides a platform for the exchange of ideas."

And here's just one of Ngozi’s answers, in a Q&A with Annie Lowrey:

"We need to move faster. The bank has to be quick, nimble and responsive in this global environment. I would like it to be much faster to get aid on the ground, and faster giving policy advice and help to ministers looking for it. I'd look to do things in days and weeks rather than months and years, and I have the bureaucratic knowledge, the knowledge of the institution, to make that happen.

"But the premier goal should be helping developing countries with the problem of job creation. In country after country, the single most important challenge is how to create good jobs – in developing countries as well as developed countries. And a big challenge is youth unemployment, which I want to tackle very fast because of the other problems it creates.

"There is an opportunity for a demographic dividend for developing countries if they address this issue. In my country, about 70% of the citizens are 30 years old or younger, and there are similar demographics in many other developing countries. The rest of the developed world is looking at a gerontocracy, but we're looking at a youth bulge.

"The World Bank is the premier institution to support young people, with all of its instruments to create jobs, build infrastructure and invest in human infrastructure. Also, green growth and climate change – that's another issue I see as an opportunity for investment. And the World Bank has the knowledge and financial resources to help."

Okonjo-Iweala knows what the bank was set up to do, knows what it's capable of, and has a real vision for how it billions can be used to create growth and prosperity around the world and specifically in Africa. Here's how Jagdish Bhagwati puts it:

"The Obama administration mistakenly believes that 'development' consists of healthcare, microfinance and other such projects, and not the big high-pay-off 'macro-level' policies such as trade. The insidious notion that the former constitutes 'development economics' and the latter does not is both wrong and glorifies the less important at the expense of the more important...

"Dr Okonjo-Iweala will do both 'macro' and 'micro' projects. But Dr Kim's healthcare expertise comes with an uncritical embrace of the charges against 'neoliberalism', betraying susceptibility to the anti-reform, anti-growth rhetoric of the 1990s."

The fact is that Kim, if you take his FT op-ed at face value, seems to be utterly clueless, and mostly interested in distancing himself from the opinions in his book (which was blurbed by Noam Chomsky) on inequality and health. There's certainly no indication that he understands exactly what it is that the bank is uniquely capable of achieving.

What's more, Kim seems to have no appetite for a contest. Okonjo-Iweala is perfectly willing to say, quite explicitly, why she's a better candidate than Kim.

She's not a narrow expert on health, as Kim is; she's expert in many subject areas, from education to agriculture to manufacturing, and also the differences between the world's developing regions. And her experience as Nigeria's economy minister is surely much more germane than Kim's as president of Dartmouth College.

Meanwhile, I've done quite a lot of searching, and asked Treasury to help me out, and so far I've managed to come up with exactly zero endorsements of Kim which explicitly say that he's a better candidate than Ngozi.

Even Kim himself hasn't said, as far as I can tell, that he's a better candidate than Ngozi.

And he has notably failed to RSVP to the Center for Global Development and the Washington Post, which are running public sessions where the candidates can explain their vision for the bank's future and be questioned by the media and members of the international development community.

Yes, it's true that Okonjo-Iweala is in many ways the "establishment choice" for the job. But that's no reason not to give it to her - quite the opposite. When you're talking about a massive bureaucracy like the World Bank, only an establishmentarian has a chance of being able to steer it, rather than simply being steered by it or completely marginalised.

Conventional wisdom has it that the NYT has endorsed Kim; it hasn't. The editorial is here; while it says nice things about Kim, it concludes by saying that the best outcome for the bank would be a "truly competitive and fully transparent" process for choosing the next president - and everybody knows that in such a process, Okonjo-Iweala would win.

Similarly Todd Moss, in an op-ed headlined Why Obama Should Keep Control of the World Bank, says quite explicitly that Okonjo-Iweala is "the candidate most qualified for the job"; the main reason for choosing Kim instead is that he will have "access to the corridors of American power".

Does Moss explain why he thinks that Kim will have more access to the corridors of American power than Okonjo-Iweala? Not as far as I can tell. And as an Ngozi observer of many years' standing, I'm quite confident in saying that should she become president of the World Bank, she will have a surprisingly large degree of access to the White House.

It seems to me that it's incumbent on the White House to at the very least attempt to explain why Kim would be better in the job than Okonjo-Iweala. If they can't or won't do that, then they should forfeit their anachronistic droit du seigneur, at least this time around when the alternative is so strong.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the best candidate for the job, and Barack Obama knows it. He should meet with her, and then do the right thing by freeing up the bank's board to vote for whomever they think most qualified.

 - Reuters

* Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters. 

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