US, Africa in unprecedented race to head World Bank

2012-03-24 07:32

Washington – The United States nominated a Korean-American Ivy League college head to lead the World Bank as African countries mounted an unprecedented challenge for the powerful job.

President Barack Obama proposed Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth College and a physician who has worked for decades in global health issues, to lead the huge poverty-fighting institution.

Hours earlier, Africa’s leading economies South Africa, Angola and Nigeria announced their support for Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former high-level World Bank official, for the job.

With both being called credible candidates to replace outgoing president Robert Zoellick, it promised to be the first-ever contested race for a job traditionally decided by Washington, as the Bank’s biggest shareholder.

Thanks to a tacit agreement, the United States has always chosen the head of the World Bank, and has always named an American, while Europe has always named one of its own to head the International Monetary Fund.

But that pact has triggered outrage from developing and emerging economies seeking greater representation to reflect their rising contributions to the global economy.

The job is crucial, overseeing the 187-nation bank’s mission to provide financial and technical assistance to countries struggling to rise out of poverty.

The Washington-based bank lent $57.3 billion (about R440 billion) last year and has more than 9 000 employees worldwide.

The surprise choice of a physician little-known beyond academic and global health circles marked a break with Washington’s usual candidates tapped from politics or Wall Street.

A Harvard-trained doctor and anthropologist, Kim (52), is the former director of the department of HIV/Aids at the World Health Organisation. He became the president of Dartmouth, in New Hampshire, in July 2009.

“It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency,” Obama said in a Rose Garden news conference with Kim at his side.

“Jim has spent more than two decades working to improve conditions in developing countries around the world,” the president said. “I believe that nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission than Doctor Jim Kim.”

The US nomination of Kim, who was born in Seoul and moved with his family to the United States at the age of five, makes him an instant favourite to get the bank’s top job.

But Okonjo-Iweala could mount a stiff challenge. She is a respected former World Bank managing director who joined Nigeria’s government as finance minister in August.

She unveiled her candidacy yesterday in Pretoria, flanked by counterparts from South Africa and Angola.

“I consider the World Bank a very important institution for the world and particularly for developing countries deserving of the best leadership,” she said.

“So I look forward to a contest of very strong candidates, and am I confident? Absolutely.”

Two others have also been in the race for the job, as self-declared candidates: Colombian former finance minister and central bank chief Jose Antonio Ocampo, and American development economist Jeffrey Sachs.

But Sachs withdrew Friday and endorsed Kim.

“Jim Kim is a superb nominee for WB,” Sachs tweeted.

“I support him 100%. I thank all who supported me and know they’ll be very pleased with today’s news.”

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank, called the US choice of Kim “a historic milestone ... with the US nominating, for the first time, a qualified candidate.”

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