Jim Yong Kim: the right choice for the World Bank?

US president Barack Obama has tipped little-known Jim Yong Kim for the top job at the World Bank. An inpired choice or a politically-motivated travesty?

Barack Obama's pick to head the World Bank when Robert Zoellick leaves this summer "comes out of the blue", says ReutersBreakingviews.com. Bypassing the usual array of bankers and ambassadors, the US president opted for Jim Yong Kim, "a disease-fighting medic", currently heading the US Ivy League school, Dartmouth College.

But while Kim's Korean birth and physician's pedigree "may mollify critics of America's monopoly on the top job" (see below), he's an "eccentric choice". He'll have his work cut out "coming cold to the financial intricacies of running a complicated international lender".

Kim has had an illustrious career promoting health and HIV prevention worldwide. But until last week, he was virtually unknown in the financial world. At Dartmouth College, he has reportedly "struggled with budget issues and a restive student body".

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How will he cope with managing the World Bank's "often rowdy" 187 member states? Kim won affection from students for his performance as a rapper in the Dartmouth Idol talent show, says The Washington Post. But his leadership has been underwhelming. "He is apt to make mistakes", runs an opinion piece in the college newspaper.

In fact, Jim Kim is an inspired choice, says Heather Hulbert in The Guardian. His stints at the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) showed he's "an innovator capable of reinventing the bank's global role in finance", who "sees the world from a perspective beyond Washington".

That should appeal to developing countries urging change. "Kim is an advocate, a development professional and a Generation X-er who spent his earliest years in a war-torn developing country." What better profile could a 21st-century World Bank president have?

Kim was born in Seoul 1959, where he lived until the age of five, before moving to Muscatine, Iowa. His dentist father taught at Iowa University; his mother was a Confucian scholar. Kim was a model student who studied at Harvard Medical School.

He first came to attention in 1987, when he co-founded Partners in Health a radical project to get treatment for TB and Aids into poor communities. Starting in Haiti and Peru, it now extends to much of the developing world. Appointed director of the HIV/AIDS programme at the WHO in 2004, Kim was the driving force behind the ambitious "three by five" programme, battling UN bureaucracy to get lifesaving drugs to millions, says Forbes.

He is "a shake-'em-up kind of interloper". "It wasn't so much his medical background that appealed to us, but rather what he has done with it," a Dartmouth trustee told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. "He has used his intellectual inquiry to tackle some of the most complex, vexing problems in the world." Seen through that prism, concludes Andrew Trotman in The Daily Telegraph, Kim sounds a good bet.

Justified win or politically motivated travesty?

Of the 12 presidents appointed since the World Bank opened in 1946, all have been white males and all have been either born or naturalised US citizens. For that, says Larry Elliott in The Guardian, we can thank the "blatant stitch-up" between the Americans and the Europeans, which ensured that while Europe chose the head of the IMF, the White House would have its say over the World Bank. Despite complaints from developing countries about this rich-world cartel, the system looks as entrenched as ever. "Barring a miracle", Kim will get the job.

Some think it's a particular travesty this year because "there are genuine, credible alternative candidates" notably, Colombian former finance minister Jos Antonio Ocampo, and Nigerian finance supremo Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, says The Economist.

The latter's credentials are especially impressive. It is widely agreed she tackled a difficult job well during her two terms as Nigeria's finance minister; she is also highly regarded within the World Bank where she previously served as a vice-president. If the job were decided on merit, Okonjo-Iweala would walk it.

Obama was in a bind, says Time. Had he pushed for a non-American, he would have been attacked in an election year for "fostering the decline of American influence". As it is, there are gripes that he has chosen a "sop" over better qualified American candidates, such as the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice; or the economist Larry Summers.

The row has been stoked by the revelation that Kim co-authored a book, Dying for Growth (2000), which criticised "neoliberalism" and "corporate-led economic growth" for making developing countries worse off, says Robin Harding in the FT. It would be a first for a World Bank president to be labelled "anti-growth". Kim's current views on economic policy are unknown. But if "he cannot set out a strong vision for how the World Bank will fuel growth", we may yet see a big upset.