UPDATED: March 29, 2012, at 5:59 a.m.
In the days since President Barack Obama’s nomination of Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim as the president of the World Bank, opinions of Harvard government and public health professors on this relatively unorthodox choice have been split.
Opponents have argued that Kim’s academic and professional background, including a position as the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, do not qualify him to be the head of the international financial institution. In contrast, supporters have called Kim, an expert in global health and development, an inspired pick who will add a vital new perspective to the World Bank.
The World Bank provides loans to developing countries in service of its official goal of global poverty reduction. Its operations primarily concern investment and finance, according to environmental engineering and environmental health professor John Briscoe, who served as the World Bank’s country director for Brazil.
Although the majority of World Bank leaders in the past came from careers in finance and business, Kim’s background is in the field of public health. Along with Harvard Medical School professor Paul Farmer, Kim co-founded Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to deliver primary and preventive health care to underserved regions, in 1987.
“Health is a small part, but not really central,” said Briscoe of the World Bank’s mission. “[Kim] has run a health organization which survives on donations....This is a very important and admirable thing, but it’s entirely different from the mission of the World Bank.”
Kim’s appointment, Briscoe said, would reduce the power of the U.S. to shape the economic futures of developing nations, causing “the end of the World Bank as we’ve known it.”
“The World Bank is primarily a bank. It loans money to countries, which [Kim] has no experience in,” said one Harvard faculty member who formerly worked for the World Bank and wished to remain anonymous. He called the future of the World Bank “a question mark,” with the next leader able to either strengthen its role as a lending institution or transform it into a voice for other organizations to assume that responsibility.
He suggested that Kim, who has served as director of the HIV/AIDS department of the World Health Organization, was nominated in part to create popular political support for dealing with global health problems and disparities between poor and rich countries.
But supporters of Kim’s nomination have argued that this global health perspective will in fact help the World Bank focus on the most important issues facing poorer countries.
Julio Frenk, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and former minister of health of Mexico, said he was elated to learn of Kim’s nomination, calling it “a great decision by President Obama.”
“[Kim’s] nomination signals a very strong will to transform the bank and fully devote it to become a leading development agency in the world,” said Frenk, who has worked extensively with the World Bank on the topic of health systems.
In contrast to the opponents of the nomination, Frenk said he believes Kim’s academic background and experience in global health will “enrich the work of the bank” and convey needed changes to the international financial institution.
Regardless of the arguments on either side, Kim seems likely to secure the post. Historically, the World Bank president has been an American citizen, while the International Monetary Fund has been headed by a European.
Still, critics have argued that Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the African nominee to the presidency, is more qualified than Kim.
Harvard Kennedy School Professor Lant Pritchett, who studies international development and worked at the World Bank for 17 years, publicly criticized Kim’s nomination in a Forbes Magazine article on Friday.
“There is no way you can say with a straight face that this man is more qualified to head the World Bank than Ngozi,” he told Forbes.
—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at email@example.com.