Elections, in the heyday of the Soviet Union, were often announced before voting concluded. It was all a done deal. The Soviet Union may be dead, but its ideas on how to conduct democratic elections are still alive and kicking.
On April 16, 2012, the new head of the World Bank was announced. To no one’s surprise, Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-American. His victory was assured since the major powers—Europe, US, Japan and Canada—voted as a bloc, by prior agreement. By convention, this coalition endorses whomever Washington nominates, and so it has been from the first meeting of the World Bank in 1946. The only break with tradition is that the winner was not a white, male politician, bureaucrat, or banker.
The other nominees are José Antonio Ocampo of Colombia, a former UN under-secretary general for economic and social affairs, and Nigeria’s current finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Both possess excellent qualifications, but this is not an election based solely on talent and ability. This appointment is the gift of the US, and it has decided that its gift is to make Jim Yong Kim the president of the World Bank.
No one suggests that Jim Yong Kim is not a worthy candidate. In fact, with a career devoted to global public health, he certainly has the qualifications for the job. In 1987, he co-founded a health charity called Partners in Health, which developed and employs a community-based care model to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in developing countries. Since then, he has worked for the World Health Organization as director of its HIV/AIDS program.
It is not the appointment that is rotten – Jim Yong Kim may well have won an honest contest on his merits – but it is the system under which the World Bank has operated since its inception.
The World Bank was conceived in Bretton Woods in 1944 to help with postwar reconstruction, later moving into other areas, like health and poverty alleviation. Today, its budget of $60 billion and is an important part of globalization. The high hopes of its founders were quickly dashed as the US quickly exerted political control over the organization.
One of its founders was the great economist John Maynard Keynes. At the inaugural meeting of the World Bank, held in Savannah, Georgia, in March 1946, one of the first decisions was to headquarter the World Bank in Washington, which revealed America’s intention to keep a tight rein on it. This signaled only the start of a takeover, with Keynes telling the US that it was acting like a “malicious fairy.” So distressed was Keynes that he proposed that it would be best “for the children to fall into an eternal slumber never to waken or be heard again in the courts and markets of mankind.” His fears were well-founded. In an article that appeared in the New York Post soon after the Savannah meeting, the reporter observed that the Truman Administration had come to the conclusion that “there is no separating the political and economic angles of a loan” from the World Bank, and therefore, it was destined to become “as political as a troop movement.”
At the height of the Cold War, the US used the World Bank to reward its Third World allies, while in the 1980s, it became a tool of neoliberals in Washington, who set conditions on loans to impose privatization and deregulation and to force recipient countries to open their markets up to international competition. They were aided and abetted by the other Bretton Woods institution: the International Monetary Fund.
The latest election reinforces the impression that US intends to use the World Bank as an extension of its foreign policy, pushing US political and economic interests around the world. This may change, as newly emerging countries like China, India, and Brazil buck US dominance and insist on merit-based elections, where candidates must outline their policies for the World Bank, possibly opening the way for new thinking and fresh ideas.
Who knows, the next election of the president of the World Bank could be a genuine surprise, with no one knowing who has won until the votes are in. Wouldn’t that be nice?