Why qualifications matter, and why it’s irrelevant in any case

Interesting comments on the World Bank presidency choice have been coming in.

Gregg Gonsalves points me to the Acemoglu and Robinson post where they point out Kim’s transformative role with Partners in Health.

Patrick Sharma also comments,

But I do agree with Gregg that we shouldn’t be so quick to consider Kim’s lack of economic bona fides a handicap. The Bank could certainly use some fresh thinking, and his non-traditional academic and policy background might help the organization grow in useful and unexpected ways.

It could just be me, but I detect an economist superiority complex at work with some of the criticism of Kim.

I agree there are many good candidates, including Kim, but we should also remember that at root this is a bank, which does not operate like an NGO, and mainly lends at concessionary rates, and mainly deals with Finance Ministers and very complex macroeconomic issues.

Thus, having someone at the helm who understands macroeconomics and banking and has been a Minister of Finance in a developing country has some advantages. It also helps to know how the Bank works before you begin. Both Ngozi and the other nominee, Jose-Antonio Ocampo, have those bona fides. There are insider advantages.

I don’t think acknowledging insider advantages is an argument for “more of the same”, or an economist bias. If we were appointing an economist to head the CDC or WHO, or an engineer to head the UN Human Rights Commission, we would look to the appointer to explain why that person’s strengths outweigh the lack of direct experience. 

It’s possible that case can be made. I suppose my point is that it ought to be made.

The more important point is that it doesn’t have to be made. US administrations have never been accountable for their nominee. It is an nontransparent, politicized process and the decisions are made by people who have the US’s interests, not the world’s interests, at the front of their minds.

Any candidate that emerges from such a process, no matter how noble, is suspect. And that candidate, no matter how well qualified or respected, is worth rejecting on principle alone.

14 thoughts on “Why qualifications matter, and why it’s irrelevant in any case

  1. The problem with appointing an economist to head the CDC or WHO is that the economics tribe is ideologically opposed to the existence of the CDC and WHO. The same cannot be said of Kim and the World Bank; there is no public health tribal animus toward development. Much the opposite.

  2. I view myself as a member of the economics tribe, and I have to say — our collective performance during the housing bubble and financial crisis does more or less disqualify our tribe from holding positions of merit or authority.

  3. Sam, you make a good point, but you missed two other mistakes I made. First, I forgot to say “Chris and Patrick’s” point, not just Patrick’s. Second, I should have said Pompey, not Ptolemy. Oops.

    Can anybody think of any existing intergovernmental processes that support meritocracy? Or any processes for that matter? (serious question) Or, at least the *appearance* of meritocracy? The appearance would at least help in the legitimacy department, if not effectiveness…

  4. I am sorry to be a spoilsport. The “senate” would in this case be an intergovernmental process. Intergovernmental processes don’t have the reputation of supporting meritocracy.

    The real challenge is to design an intergovernmental process that does take into account merits. As evidence goes, the experience is not uplifting.

    The civil society can manage to get Ngozi appointed this time, but what about next time? And is the current process with bloggers yelling really that good?

  5. Yes to an open process and yes to breaking the stranglehold of US control over who runs the Bank. But let’s also be clear that the World Bank’s mission is supposed to be to eliminate global poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals. And it has largely been failing on that score–with progress often happening despite the Bank.
    For example, see the internal independent evaluation that found only 13 percent of IFC projects had any objectives related to people in poverty and that the majority (60 percent) of their advisory programs actually delivered no identifiable benefits to society, let alone to the poor. (http://ieg.worldbankgroup.org/content/ieg/en/home/features/poverty.html)
    Or see the most recent ten-year evaluation showed that three quarters of World Bank’s HNP health programs in Africa failed by their own unambitious measures! (http://www.results.org/newsroom/evaluation_shows_world_bank_is_failing_on_health/)

    In that context, we should be asking some much bigger questions than who knows how to manage concessional lending rates (there are a great many in the Bank who do). We should be asking who can transform the institution into one that’s focused on success? Folks like Lant Pritchett who has been deeply involved in Bank policies for decades are pulling for folks who they think won’t upset the apple cart. But it’s time for it to be upset.
    So what shows us Jim can do that? Here’s my two favorites:
    -he lead WHO’s 3×5 initiative at a time when everyone said it couldn’t be done… it’s worth going back and reading what was said at the time by all the “experts” in international development about how impossible the effort would be–and yet it succeeded (if a bit late) and galvanized a global response.
    -he founded the Delivery Project between health and business professionals to up-end some large-scale international development assumptions about what can and cannot be delivered to poor communities.
    There are plenty of reasons to support Ngozi or Ocampo (though I would argue Ngozi is getting support from some quarters because she’s the most supportive of orthodox economic principles that have failed so many) but Jim’s expertise doesn’t play into it… few folks have achieved what he has.

  6. I’ve waited to say in an entirely separate comment that Patrick’s comment is ultimately what really matters. It’s the selection process, stupid (and how the Bank is run).

    It’s like, while everybody’s fighting over whether Caesar, Ptolemy, or Marc Antony should be the next Emperor, a few brave souls (Mohamed El-Erian, Nancy Birdsall, Patrick) are asking, quite rightly, “wait, what about the Senate?!”

  7. “If we were appointing an economist to head the CDC or WHO, or an engineer to head the UN Human Rights Commission, we would look to the appointer to explain why that person’s strengths outweigh the lack of direct experience.”

    Exactly my thoughts as I watch all my public health friends jump for joy at Kim’s nomination…

    Ranil Dissanayake, you make a good point, but Kim is neither a lawyer nor a political scientist — why should he be the next president of the World Bank? As Chris said, the burden of proof is on the “appointer” (as Chris put it) or the supporters (e.g. Jeff Sachs), not his critics, to say whether Kim’s strengths outweigh his lack of experience as an economist, a political scientist, a banker, a lawyer, a policymaker, a manager of a multilateral development institution, or any other qualification Kim’s supporters (or anyone) might think is important for the next president of the World Bank.

    I think AcemoÄŸlu and Robinson didn’t do this, and neither did Sachs. I’ve read the A-R post four times, and can’t seem to find anything more to their argument than this: “check out PIH,” “watch this video,” “how about the extraordinary new 150 bed hospital at Butaro,” and “Mr. Kim” (not Dr. Kim..?) “knows how to get things done and improve the lives of poor people.” Seriously? That’s it? That’s all it takes to be the next president of the WB? Furthermore, they write that “all of Mr. Kim’s critics prefer the status quo,” and they specifically cite Lant and Bill Easterly as critics. Again, I have to ask, is that serious? How can anybody, least of all AcemoÄŸlu and Robinson, read either Lant’s or Bill’s thoughts on the World Bank for more than eight seconds and conclude that they prefer the “status quo”? That’s just nuts. It’s like they just didn’t really read the critiques… I could understand if their point was that Lant and Bill are too ambitious, that their goals are too *radical*, too implausible, and would therefore get us nowhere, leaving us with nothing better than the status quo, hence the overall desirability of Dr. Kim, despite his (lack of) experience. But I don’t see that argument anywhere… is that what they’re implying?

  8. Wow, I think the defensiveness of Michael’s response to my comment might have proven my point! (I’m a big fan of your work, btw.)

    Putting aside concerns about Kim’s tenure at Dartmouth, which are indeed worrying, I think we can all agree that the key here is the need for a more open, merit-based selection process. Alas, domestic politics continues to dominate global governance, and Kim’s appointment can be seen as another example of Obama pushing the boundaries but not pursuing fundamental, transformative change.

    As a historian, I think it’s my duty to remind people that the World Bank, at least among its staff, hasn’t always been dominated by economists. For most of the Bank’s early life, the organization’s staff was dominated by engineers, while its leadership was made up of bankers. Economists were relatively few and far between, and this had important effects on the Bank’s operations, something Jeffrey Chwieroth has written extensively about. (See here, for instance: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/chwierot/Images/Organizational.pdf.)

    In any case, given that none of us mere mortals have a huge say in this, I’d love to use this occasion to start talking about how, exactly, the new Bank president, whomever he or she is, should lead the organization over the coming years. More IDA emphasis on the poorest countries, rethinking Bank lending in fast growing middle income countries, and more attention on global public goods are clear needs, but I’d love for someone who knows more about the Bank to talk specifics. We can all agree that the important thing is *how* the next president leads the institution.

  9. I think those who suggest that the bank should prioritize policies for economic growth above all other considerations need to grapple with the critique that the Bank (and international macroeconomic technocrats more broadly) has not demonstrated that it is capable of bringing about economic growth at all, no matter which economist is at the helm. The most impressive cases of growth have come about when developing country governments bucked the advice of the World Bank and IMF.

  10. How many of the recent Bank presidents have been economists? Zoellick is a lawyer. Wolfowitz did Political Science. Wolfensohn, widely held to be one of the best Presidents of them all was a lawyer.

    As an economist, I don’t think you need to be a great economist to understand how a bank works; and besides, one thing the World Bank President won’t want for is a number of good economists who can advise him.

  11. I guess the debate on who is to succeed the Bank can also come down to what role the Bank should be playing. As noted by Clemens, “development is totally different than “getting things done” by external actors”, and the Bank is an external actor so I guess it cannot really help with development. What it can help with is health and education projects that make every day life easier for poor people. And for this, Kim might be a good choice, though ending the process of having a US dude head the bank should probably end now. It’s not like the bank, whether headed by an economist who understands “complex macro problems” or not, can bring development.

  12. I second Kim Jim’s comment: see Felix Salmon’s post on the topic. With the continuing revelations about DSK’s disgustingness, this article seems too damning to ignore.

  13. Great points, Chris, especially on the importance of a legitimate process. Thanks.

    The AcemoÄŸlu and Robinson post is remarkable. It equates the complexities of causing economic development with building a beautiful externally-financed hospital. AcemoÄŸlu and Robinson are brilliant analysts of institutional change and they know that development is totally different than “getting things done” by external actors.

    As for Sharma’s comment about economists’ superiority complex: Would a doctor who critiqued the appointment of an economist to run a hospital be described as having a medical superiority complex? That is just ridiculous.