The Common Good
July 2012

As the World Bank Turns

by Marie Dennis | July 2012

The Bank's new head has community-level anti-poverty expertise—and many challenges to face.

IN APRIL, THE World Bank’s executive directors selected Dr. Jim Yong Kim to serve as its president. Kim, whose five-year term begins in July, will be the first World Bank president whose primary experience is in community-level development. Most of his predecessors were bankers or politicians.

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As a co-founder of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit dedicated to “a preferential option for the poor in health care,” and as a former director of the HIV/AIDS department of the World Health Organization, Kim has done groundbreaking work in delivering essential medicines for the treatment of AIDS to impoverished countries. He has a proven capacity for designing effective solutions to real problems. His election may well usher in a new culture at the World Bank—a culture that focuses not on economic growth that doesn’t trickle down, but on poverty reduction that is real.

For almost 70 years, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been major players in the global economy; the World Bank has 188 member countries, all of which must first be admitted to the IMF. In their many years of doing business, these institutions have reinvented themselves more than once. The World Bank’s focus has evolved from rebuilding Europe and Japan following World War II to supporting large-scale engineering projects in so-called “developing” countries; from emphasizing nutrition, population, and poverty in the 1970s to “adjusting” the economic policies of countries in the global South, beginning in the early 1980s.

As the negative impact of IMF policies and World Bank projects on impoverished people and their communities became increasingly evident, people of faith and grassroots groups around the world, particularly in the global South, began demanding change. They organized and advocated for greater transparency, accountability, and participation, insisting that failed strategies promoted and financed by the IMF and World Bank were related to hunger and other poverty-related problems, a growing rich-poor gap in almost every country, and environmental destruction.

One advocacy focus has been how the World Bank selects its president. In response, a new process was approved in 2011. For the first time, it included an open nomination: Any citizen of a World Bank member country could be proposed by any member nation or executive director. Besides Kim, two other candidates were nominated, both from the global South—José Antonio Ocampo, the former finance minister of Colombia, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister.

However, demands for deeper governance reforms at the Bank, including just voting procedures and more equitable representation on the executive board, have not been met. Since the beginning, decision-making power in the World Bank and IMF has been heavily weighted in favor of wealthy countries: A country’s voting power has been proportional to its financial contribution, and, traditionally, the World Bank president has been from the United States and the IMF managing director from Europe. (Kim, born in South Korea, has lived in the U.S. since he was 5.)

An open nomination process and the election of a president with real-life, grassroots experience solving some of poverty’s most intractable problems are significant achievements. Yet, in an open letter of welcome to Dr. Kim, civil society advocates underscore the ongoing need for “transformative leadership” toward “serious and genuine” World Bank reform. Criticizing the Bank’s current “massive support for large-scale, dirty fossil fuel projects” and “big, regional [infrastructure] projects with private participation,” the letter urges the Bank to help “abolish health user fees and expand access to good quality education” and to support policies that “serve communities and smallholder farmers directly rather than corporate and government elites.”

Is Kim’s selection a sign of real change at the Bank? That remains to be seen.

Marie Dennis is co-president of Pax Christi International and a Sojourners contributing editor.

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