Experts sound off on Ivy League candidate for World Bank head

Obama's nomination of Dartmouth president Jim Kim is both praised and disputed

· March 29, 2012, 7:13 pm   ·  Updated March 30, 2012, 12:40 am

Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, President Barack Obama’s unexpected nominee to head the World Bank, is being praised for the fresh outlook he can bring to the organization.

Experts say Kim — a physician and co-founder of the celebrated nonprofit Partners in Health — would bring a major change to the international banking institution, which has historically been led by economists and government officials.

“It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency,” Obama said when announcing Kim’s nomination last week.

Penn President Amy Gutmann praised the decision. “We need someone with Dr. Kim’s vision and values to improve the world through the World Bank’s considerable impact,” she said. “He’s an excellent choice on the president’s part.”

He is “somebody who has experience in poverty eradication through both diplomatic channels and an understanding of community-level education,” said Carol McLaughlin, research director at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice. “He would bring an understanding of … how investments in education, health and the capacity-building of people can be the stimulus for economic growth.”

However, Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins found fault with Obama’s tendency to select Ivy League-affiliated individuals for important positions.

“This idea that we must draw our leadership from the same tiny, little incestuous pool runs counter to democracy and makes our country an aristocracy,” he said. “Overreliance on your academic training … can certainly be a problem.”

This is not the first time Obama has tapped an Ivy League president for a key post. After his resignation as president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers was chosen to direct the National Economic Council. Gutmann has chaired the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues since November 2009.

“It’s not to say that Mr. Kim is not a great appointment,” Watkins said. “[But] we can’t pretend for one second that the majority of America’s talent lies in the Ivy League.”

Gutmann countered that “President Obama makes thousands of appointments and has appointed individuals from diverse backgrounds.”

Kim has other critics as well, who believe he is not as qualified for the position as his contenders are.

His two competitors for the World Bank presidency are Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Columbia University professor Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former Colombian finance minister and United Nations official.

Lant Pritchett, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, considers Kim’s nomination to be “a terrible idea.”

“It’s an embarrassment to the U.S.,” he said in an interview with Forbes. “There is no way you can say with a straight face that this man is more qualified to head the World Bank than Ngozi … Having the experience of a minister of finance is the optimal experience for being president of the World Bank.”

In making his nomination, Obama passed over better-known options, including Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi and Summers.

Earlier this week, Kim embarked on a worldwide tour to marshal support for his nomination.

In a letter to the Dartmouth community published last week, he wrote, “While President Obama’s call is compelling, the prospect of leaving Dartmouth at this stage is very difficult. Nevertheless, should the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors elect me as the next president, I will embrace the responsibility.”

A final decision will be made next month.

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