Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Obama and the World Bank-- SHAME! .

A public health guy in charge of a bank?  Silly.  The WORLD Bank? 
Since I am not a development economist myself, I am trusting the word of The Economist Magazine's article on this a few days ago.  Appointments to the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), just like most ambassadorial, cabinet, and other top jobs such as head of the NSF and FDA, are motivated far too much by politics, and far too little by considerations about who would do the best job (i.e. meritocracy).

Now, it is ok to repay friends with meaningless jobs, say the Ambassador to a small, peaceful island somewhere.  But when it comes to the IMF and WB, you are literally killing millions of people when you appoint someone without the proper training, understanding, intelligence, and focus to improve the lives of the poverty-stricken people in the world.

Mr. Obama is apparently trying to get Jim Yong Kim, someone with an MD and experience in Public Health, to lead the World Bank.  The WB's job is to teach developing nations how to grow out of poverty through the right kinds of choices and development, and through providing loans to fund that development.

The first grounds for shame are simply the most obvious: a public health professor has as much ability to run the WB as I do to run the World Health Organization(WHO).  The only difference being, that I have spent many, many years of my life dedicated to studying health economics, health law, pharmacology, and other health related issues.  I got a research grant from the NIH.  However, being an honorable man, if the president asked me to head the WHO I would slap him very hard on the back and ask him how stupid and/or crazy one of us are.  While I have a lot that I could ADVISE the leader the WHO about, I would be a murderer if I ran it.  Lives would be in my (incapable) hands.

I am certain that Mr. Kim is smart, but part of being smart is knowing your limitations and living within them.  I have often said that I am more comfortable working with limited people who know their limitations, than brighter people who have no clue when they are attempting to do something beyond their talents.

I think that this is certainly the case here-- Mr. Kim has no idea what economic development is.  Mr. Kim wrote a foreward in a book  "called “Dying for Growth”, he wrote that “the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of men and women”, quoted Noam Chomsky and praised Cuba for “prioritising social equity”."  The leader of an economic development organization had BETTER not claim that economic development is bad, nor that Cuba has done it the right way. Noam Chomsky is another prime example of a brilliant person (who I do admire on many grounds) who goes a bit batty when talking economics.  Promoting "equity" always has the consequence of reducing prosperity overall, which is the opposite of the need in developing countries.  These are the unforgivable sins of Obama, and for Mr. Kim if he plays along.

The other interesting thing in the Economist article is the discussion of the three top candidates for the job:
"The World Bank is the world’s premier development institution. Its boss needs experience in government, in economics and in finance (it is a bank, after all). He or she should have a broad record in development, too. Ms Okonjo-Iweala has all these attributes, and Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo has a couple. By contrast Jim Yong Kim, the American public-health professor whom Barack Obama wants to impose on the bank, has at most one."

I find it very interesting that a woman from Africa, who seems to have the right qualifications, is being pushed aside for a wholly unqualified Korean.  Hey, I love Koreans as well as Africans, but what kind of twisted process has us favoring an unqualified person over a well-qualified one, regardless of the race or gender?  There has to be some strange reason, perhaps Obama's close ties to South Korea (Obama has visited South Korea more than any other foreign country as president).  I would give bonus points to a competent, qualified African simply because much of the important development work needs to be focused on sub-Saharan Africa.  Perhaps an African has some new insights, or leadership styles, that could make a difference.  To be sure, southern Asia also has a lot of economic development needs.

In any case, a public health professor should never have been on the list, much less the short list of candidates.  By the way, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala has  Ph.D. from MIT in Regional Economic Development.  Her dissertation topic: "Credit Policy, Rural Financial Markets, and Nigeria's Agricultural Development".  Mr. Kim has an MD from Harvard as well as a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology.  Dissertation Title: "Pills, production, and the symbolic code: Pharmaceuticals and the political economy of meaning in South Korea".  Though my experience with social anthropology suggests that it is largely gibberish, I skimmed Kim's thesis (353 pages!!), and it is at least readable, if far too informal for me. While neither Kim nor Okonjo-Iweala's degree is shabby, who would you pick?

One of the biggest lessons we offer to developing nations is that the right people must get the right jobs, and that this should happen by looking for the best, not our cronies.  It is sad to see the rot in Washington DC that could produce this outcome.

Just one last note-- to be an equal opportunity offender, I am not a cheerleader for any party, only for honesty, reason, and science.  Of course, that means that I thought that GW Bush did just as horribly on many occasions, with his nominations/appointees for the Supreme Court and several other national agencies, for which we all felt the pain.  Why our leaders feel that anything less than the best, most honest effort possible is honorable, I will never understand.  Let's hope we can raise our children to be better.