Was the fight against the World Bank President futile or fruitless?

Jim Kim will be the next President of the World Bank. Probably a good one.

There was a spirited debate in the papers, blogs and even Twitter. Some of my favorite exchanges are here and here, plus a good-natured Tweet-scrap yesterday with @dandrezner, @gregggonsalves, @SlaughterAM, @alexcobham, @jonathanglennie, and @bill_easterly, to name a few.

Some arguments others made: There was never a real chance of Kim being rejected, especially in an election year. Kim’s ability to act boldly will now be hampered. And even the more “open” process is still undemocratic and closed.

All three statements are pretty much exactly right. How about the conclusion some draw: that the fight to change the process was fruitless, futile or nonsense? I’d argue the opposite.

Since I have thought and read about social movements for at least 45 minutes, I now feel qualified to blog confidently on the subject.

In social movements, the shortest distance between two points is seldom a straight line. And social and institutional change seldom happen quickly.

When choosing their nominee, I’m willing to bet someone in the Obama administration said: “Folks, let’s avoid that mess Bush had with Wolfowitz,” followed by, “So it sure would be nice if we didn’t pick a white male American-born banker.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the nominee was a Jim Kim and not a Larry Summers or Tim Geithner.

Next time, the conversation around the table might be a little different still. That is the hope.

As for Kim’s inhibited effectiveness, I take a few lessons from politics and political science:

  1. Yes! Leaders who lack legitimacy are less effective. But do you blame the rabble who criticize? Or the illegitimacy of the process itself?
  2. Stable institutions are supposed to constrain leaders from bold action. Where formal checks and balances are lacking, civil society can step into the breach. That, as much as an election, is the essence of a democratic process.
  3. Mean reversion. Kim will probably exceed now-lowered expectations (in contrast to say… the President who nominated him). That is not a terrible starting point.

Finally, yes, even the more open process I pushed for is far from democratic. As a bank and a development institution, however, I’m not sure it ever should go so far. But any movement towards a less closed, less opaque system strikes me as a good one.

The civil society response this round–even if it was driven in large part by an economic elite–was unprecedented. So was the public debate.

Next round I expect the response to be more broad-based and louder. And it will probably fail. But the next round after that…?

Stepping into the breach.

When we think about social change, we focus on the moments of victory. But such victories are the product of many small acts and efforts, often set back, mostly defeated. Like this one.

I take heart. The arc of history is long.