Selecting a World Bank president: The resilience of a West-centric world

The governance of the world economy remains neoliberal and West-centric, and for this reason less than legitimate.

Electing the US candidate Jim Yong Kim to the presidency of the World Bank may have been a missed opportunity to ameliorate animosity stemming from the global economic meltdown [AFP]
Electing the US candidate Jim Yong Kim to the presidency of the World Bank may have been a missed opportunity to ameliorate animosity stemming from the global economic meltdown [AFP]

Santa Barbara, CA – The unsurprising announcement that the Board of the World Bank had voted in favour of the American candidate, Jim Yong Kim, presents an opportune moment to reflect upon the soft power structures that shape global public policy in the early 21st century. It is necessary to draw a distinction between Mr Kim’s substantive qualifications and the procedure by which he was selected.

Substantively, although lacking in either financial or diplomatic experience, Dr Kim is an interesting choice because of his lifelong dedication to improving the health of the very poor in the global South, as well as his training in medicine and PhD in anthropology. He has had extensive relevant experience on the ground, and in working with NGOs (he co-founded the widely admired Partners in Health) and in institutional settings (he directed the HIV/AIDs programme for the World Health Organisation) and has been president of Dartmouth University for the past three years, although hardly without controversy. It may be still wondered whether Dr Kim will understand sufficiently the economic dimensions of World Bank policy, and might have been more appropriately chosen to head an enhanced programme of the Bank on health and poverty. Overall, still, the substantive case for the appointment is relatively strong, although the two opposing candidates, both former finance ministers of developing countries, certainly had equally impressive substantive résumés.

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The procedural criticisms of the appointment process are far more serious, and raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy of global institutions in the post-colonial period. It was not surprising that Dr Kim’s two opponents, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigera and José Antonio Ocampo of Colombia, openly expressed their disgust with the process, complaining that the most qualified candidate had not been selected. Ms Okonjo-Iweala uttered a truism when she said that selecting the Bank president was not “open, transparent and merit-based”. Mr Ocampo was more direct, saying, “[Y]ou know this thing is not really being decided on merit”. On one level the vote was a foregone conclusion because Europe had bargained away their independence with respect to the Bank some months earlier so as to secure American support for Christine Lagarde’s appointment as head of the IMF. In fact, there were feeble boasts made in Western circles that at least this time there were non-Western candidates for these positions.

Looked at more critically, given American responsibility for the global meltdown and recession going back to 2008 and the failed European efforts to solve the sovereign debt problems, and considering how well the leading emerging economies handled the crisis of the last several years, now would have been an ideal moment to acknowledge the globalisation of economic knowhow, and pick a non-Westerner to head the Bank. President Obama might even have restored some of his tarnished reputation as a visionary if he had gratuitously given up the informal prerogative enjoyed by the United States ever since the end of World War II, although those who preside over the erosion of imperial prerogatives are rarely appreciated at home for acknowledging changing realities, however compelling the case for change may be. It might not have been a political move in an election year, but at anytime would have not been appreciated by the likes of the Wall Street Journal.

Unchallenged control

The informal lock on Western domination of the Bretton Woods institutions continues without much challenge. It is reported that both China and India supported the selection of Dr Kim, apparently not wanting to alter expectations, and even Russia and Mexico voted for the American candidate. It seems that the geopolitical comfort level of the BRIC countries remains accommodationist in character, suggesting that decolonising the mind of the global South has a long way to go.

It would seem almost self-evident that the informal power/prestige sharing that might have appeared natural in 1945 should no longer govern behaviour more than 65 years later. As it is, despite broadening the G-8 to the G-20 with regard to some global economic issues, the governance of the world economy remains determinedly neoliberal and West-centric, and for this reason less than legitimate, especially when consideration is given to widening disparities of wealth and income within and between countries and the persistence of high levels of deep poverty and material deprivation.

The geopolitical passivity of the BRICs is not encouraging from the perspective either of the wellbeing of the peoples of the world or the prospects for global democracy. It is notable that such passivity is also evident in other policy domains: climate change, control of nuclear weaponry and even recourse to military intervention (the most that BRIC countries were able to do to express their opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya was to abstain when it came to the crucial March 2011 vote in the Security Council).

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Undoubtedly, the most vivid institutional effort to achieve global reform that reflects the world we now live in rather than the one that existed at the end of World War II when most of the non-West was formally or informally under Western control, has been the struggle to broaden membership in the UN Security Council. It is scandalously anachronistic that the United Kingdom and France, at best secondary countries in the present global hierarchy, both hold permanent seats in the Security Council and enjoy a veto right, while countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey compete for two-year terms that are shared with the other 189 members of the UN. It is not only a problem of representation for important states, but also the fact that there is no Muslim or Hindu majority state that is permanently represented. At least with the UN there is an excuse that the Charter prescribes that there must be total acquiescence in any change in the composition of the Security Council by all five of its permanent members, as well as two-thirds of the overall membership.

I suppose it is far too much to expect that France and the UK would accept a single rotating European permanent seat, and relinquish their dysfunctional separate membership on the Council. In the meantime, the UN System is largely frozen in time, and the world is deprived of a more legitimate global problem-solving capability that is desperately needed at this time.

It is important to move toward the achievement of global democracy for the sake of both global policymaking and the overall legitimacy of world order. To move away from violent geopolitics, acknowledging changes in the status of governments by reliance on soft power criteria leadership of international institutions has never been more useful. From this perspective the selection of Dr Kim, even if he lives up to his considerable potential for a turn toward global empathy, is one more lost opportunity.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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