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Was the fight against the World Bank President futile or fruitless? - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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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.

8 Responses

  1. The comment here is very interesting. I think the point should be that the system is credentials based and I believe Jim Kim was elected on those merits. However, it brings to light skepticism behind “our” idea’s of western credentials. Financial systems are not world wide, each country refers to its own economic policy for decision making. Within this, while I believe Kim was a good choice, I feel as if the uproar is just beginning. The idea of U.S. led economics seems to be slowly slipping away. Because of this U.S. economic power seems to be slipping through our grasp, “which may be deserved”. Subsequently we can no longer expect global organizations, even those originating from the U.S. to maintain “allegiance” to western economics.

  2. Most likely the people who criticized Kim and the manner of his nomination knew that what they were really doing was petitioning for a change. However it was always likely that an American would be the next World Bank President. It was almost a case of wishful thinking to imagine a citizen of another country holding this position.
    But I’m sure Kim understands the criticism around his selection and, if he is responsive, will make governance reform one of the highest priorities with his time as President. He might be way better than everyone things and make the changes that experts desire. Only time will tell. I believe Kim will respond to the criticism and pressure and go on to be the most effective World Bank President to date.

  3. To carry over from the last thread, and essentially rehash that argument: Does the barrage of criticism Kim has received make it more or less likely that his practice as manager will be highly reformist? I think that the room Kim had to move has narrowed somewhat.

    (I concede that if you think that ‘radical changes’ would be directed at a rush to health, or take the bank outside what you think are core mandates, then you might be happy with a degree of conservatism.)

  4. A group of Ecuadorian farmers collaborate without the help of the central or local state govt, to redistribute land and water, and conserve the high pastures of the mountain (which acts as a giant sponge). They have increased water supply by 10%, and repaired thousands of miles of water channel.

    The Guardian notes — “If this had been a World Bank project, it would have cost billions and probably would not have succeeded.”


    On another note… does it have to be “the best candidate”, or is it OK to have a competent candidate, or “good enough” candidate. We don’t require women to be “the best mother possible”, perhaps a “good enough” mother is sufficient to raise good human beings.

  5. I wrote the post below on Owen’s blog on the 25th of March. Still valid, it could have been to Chris a few posts ago, move on.

    March 25, 2012 at 7:44 pm
    Earth calling Owen,

    This is not a real application process, but rather an election, with delegates of MS having voting rights.

    At the UN, a lot of the positions are genuinely elected by the member states. Anybody who has been around these “elections” has heard how the campaigns are run.

    Some countries (I hope the UK is one of them) play by the book, and will boast the credentials of their candidate, and help them to make their case to the delegates. Other countries give presents to ambassadors to buy votes.

    Even elections in “democracies” seldom really compare merit of the different candidates.

    The real question is: what process will lead to the best candidate chosen? The current situation looks like near optimal: real elections, with a free for all, could lead to a corrupt process, like it often does at the UN. The current system with a US candidate being chosen, but wit a real risk of a veto by others if the candidate is sub-par, has promise.

    I could go on, but this is your post, I should not hijack it.

  6. It’s still incomprehensible to me that anyone thinks the OECD would fail to retain leadership of an institution they contribute so much money to, and which they have a deep interest in constraining.

  7. Another excellent post, Chris.

    I assume many of the people who criticized Kim and the process understood that what they were really doing was laying the foundation for change. The American nominee was a shoe-in this time, but members of future US administrations, less hampered by upcoming elections, might now be less prone to keeping the process closed. (They could simply not nominate anyone, for instance).

    Similarly, I imagine Kim understands the criticism around his selection and, if he is responsive, will make governance reform a key part of his agenda. We’ll see.

    In any case, I would love to see you and other prominent development figures keep up the pressure. Does anyone have thoughts on how this can be done? Reform movements only achieve their goals if reformers keep up their energy.

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