Point of View Columns

In the Presence of Genius

In the daily tsunami of news about Colombia hookers and Mitt Romney’s dog the announcement of the appointment of Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank seems to have gotten lost. And that is really too bad. By nominating Dr. Kim President Obama has once more demonstrated that he really is about transformational change. Supporters of Barack Obama who complain of frustration and disappointment should take a closer look at Dr. Kim and the World Bank.

We know that the World Bank, which has been in existence for over sixty years, is a global institution with 187 members that has as its mission sustainable growth and development throughout the world. Currently, the World Bank engages in the financing of over $60 billion projects and initiatives every year. There has been nothing like the World Bank in the history of the world.

And speaking of history, every president of the World Bank has been the nominee of an American president. Every president of the World Bank has also been a white male who has been an alumnus of the permanent corporate/governmental complex. The presidents of the World Bank have always been more comfortable in the corridors of power in Washington and New York than in the shacks and villages of the developing world.

And now President Obama has nominated Dr. Kim who is the very brilliant president of Dartmouth College. But if Dr. Kim had the Dartmouth presidency as the main reason for his appointment it would be understandable to view his selection as World Bank president as more of the same, no matter how brilliant he might be – indeed, many of the World Bank presidents have had a reputation for brilliance. But Dr. Kim is so much more.

Jim Yong Kim is an anthropologist and a medical doctor. He is the recipient of a MacArthur (“genius”) fellowship for his transcendent work in personally addressing the problems of the world. It was Dr. Kim who developed a cost-effective process for treating tuberculosis in the slums of South America. And it was Dr. Kim who established a successful initiative for addressing HIV/AIDS in Africa that is estimated to have saved over seven million lives.

Developing countries have complained about the process by which Dr. Kim was selected – another American chosen by the American president. Alternative candidates with significant support included Ngozi Okongo-Iweala, the Finance Minister of Nigeria and Jose Antonio Ocampo, the Finance Minister of Colombia.

These individuals are certainly outstanding and their credentials are meritorious, but at the end of the day the selection of either of these individuals would have represented the selection of another veteran of the global finance cadre that is comprised of economists and ministers of finance and development bank executives.

The optics would have changed but the narrative would have remained the same.
Dr. Kim has actually walked in the villages where people are needlessly dying of curable diseases. He has seen firsthand the impact that clean water can have on a child. He has seen men and women die because of ignoble and ignorant governmental policies and he has engineered solutions that have worked.

The developing countries that have complained about Dr. Kim’s appointment are half-right. The process for selection should not just be an American prerogative that brings to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s mission to aid his “little brown brothers”. It is certainly time for someone other than an American to run the World Bank just as its time for someone other than a European to run the International Monetary Fund.

But it is also time for someone other than another finance minister to run the World Bank. It is time for someone other than another economist to run the World Bank It is clearly the time for leadership that is directly connected to the misery and poverty that still reigns over this planet – and not by virtue of fact finding missions, conferences and power point presentations. It is time for a change in leadership at the World Bank – the mixed results of the World Bank over the past half century prove that point, and Dr. Kim represents that change.

Dr. Kim’s appointment also tells us something very important about President Obama. By this selection Barack Obama demonstrates his understanding of transformative change. It is not enough to keep doing the same thing over and over again. And it is not enough to change the optics. The World Bank is historical for many reasons – it should be historical for its future record of success.

When supporters of Barack Obama begin to sip from their cup of disappointment and frustration they should answer this question. Can anyone seriously imagine Mitt Romney selecting Dr. Kim?

The Teapublicans are right in characterizing President Obama as an agent of change. And it is the type of change that this country and this world absolutely needs.

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