Why Jim Kim’s Critics are Wrong

| Gregg Gonsalves
Gregg Gonsalves

Lant Pritchett—a Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School—has been leading a campaign against the election of Jim Kim to the World Bank presidency. While he isn’t the only critic of Dr. Kim’s nomination, he is among the most vocal, prominent and well known. Though his views are his own, many of them have been amplified and echoed by other leading development economists like William Easterly at New York University and several people associated with the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC.

Over the past few weeks, Pritchett has questioned Kim’s qualifications, saying a lack of training in economics and experience in world finance should disqualify him from consideration for the post. He has further suggested that the nomination is about the arrogance of American power and hegemony over the institution and that he should step aside for a merit-based election in which the Nigerian candidate for the post, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank, Harvard and MIT alum and finance minister of Nigeria would sweep to victory.

A few days ago, Pritchett wrote an article in the New Republic, which finally comes clean about the real reasons for the escalating, grasping campaign of opposition to Jim Kim. The piece for the New Republic (TNR) is called Why Obama’s World Bank Pick Is Proving So Controversial. The title again is an overreach: it should really read why Obama’s World Bank Pick Is Proving So Controversial to Me and My Friends. Again, while Pritchett’s views are his own, his article has resonated with other development economists, including Easterly, who have circulated links to it over the past few days. Pritchett’s piece has clearly struck a nerve among his peers.

Jim Kim has extensive support around the world for his candidacy, but it is vital for us to understand Pritchett’s objections to Dr. Kim as it all really boils down to what we think “development” is, what all of our work is about in our countries, whether we live and work in poor, middle-income or even rich nations. Pritchett in the TNR posits two kinds of development: national development and humane development.

National development “would involve the natural replication of the four-fold historical transformation of the developed nation-states: Economies would become more productive and hence support broad-based prosperity, polities would become more fully responsive to their citizens, administration would become more capable, and societies would become more equal as birth-based distinctions (such as class and caste) and divisive identities (of kith and clan) faded in favor of modern social relationships. Note that each of these was something that would happen not just to individuals but to a country.”

Pritchett goes on to define humane development as a kind of philanthropy, where people step into the breach where national development has failed, where “these idealists and the organizations they run have helped to mitigate famines, pandemics, poverty, violence, and lawlessness in some of the poorest areas in the world.” Jim Kim is a humane development type in Pritchett’s eyes, not fit to run the Bank, which should focus on national development alone, an approach that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a card-carrying economist would bring to Washington, DC. However, Dr. Pritchett who has been a leader in the field of modern national development is deeply myopic.

First, while many people have been lifted out of poverty over the past century due to economic growth, inequity is pervasive and we are well on our way to creating a new transnational economic elite or rich people without borders. The birth-based distinctions and divisive identities that Dr. Pritchett rightly decries are being replaced by class-based ones. However, when you worry mostly about growth in the aggregate, the little people don’t matter.

Second, political responsiveness and accountability, better governance and administration have been integral to those of us who work on health and other issues that are not directly about economic growth and achieving the aims of national development can come through work on things other than economics and democratization in the abstract. In fact, the fight against AIDS has been transformative in this regard. As the South African journalist Jonny Steinberg has said in his book Three Letter Plague: “The idea of demanding that a drug be put on a shelf, or that a doctor arrive at his appointed time, is without precedent. The social movement to which AIDS medicine has given birth is utterly novel in this part of the world, the relationship between its members and state institutions previously unheard of.”

AIDS has been about accountability and state responsiveness, about better governance and administration. Pritchett has previously and vociferously complained about the provision of ART in the developing world as a prime example of palliative humane development, misguided philanthropy, but for those of us who have watched more closely this has all been about key aspects of national development, about “polity, administration, and society,” as Pritchett himself terms it.

For Pritchett and his peers, Jim Kim is a crazed, lefty, charity worker who pushed pills on Africa—this is why they dislike him so. They refuse, again and again, to see what Kim did, what we all did, as critical to their own self-professed goals around democratization. The push for AIDS treatment was not charity or mitigation, but all about what governments should do for their citizens; it was about redefining citizenship and state responsibility.

Why do they have such an inability to see this? Well, because I think there is something else going on. Over the past several decades there has been a push from those working at the highest levels of economic and social policy around the world to redefine state responsibilities downwards. The historian Tony Judt described this well in his book Ill Fares the Land. We’re seeing a renegotiation of the post World War Two social contract, which enshrined a system of social protections around the world, in Europe, Canada and Australia and even in the USA, which offered a safety net for the poor and the sick and saw this safety net as a core responsibility of the state.

In 1935, John Maynard Keynes said: “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Nowadays, from Clinton’s “welfare reform” in the 1990s, to the current, slow dismantling of the NHS in the UK by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, states are getting out of the business of helping the poor and the sick. These political choices derive from larger intellectual frameworks constructed largely by economists where things like healthcare are not a “public good,”—they are like a loaf of bread, one eats it on one’s own—and states should only invest in what provide broad based benefits, key among them economic growth and defense. In our brave new world, the models for national development are the states of austerity-crazed Europe and a USA in the mind of Republicans, where we are slashing social protection programs, cutting public spending, all in the appeasement of the gods of growth.

For people like Lant Pritchett and a generation of development economists like him, all heirs to Thomas Malthus, you can’t have it all or anything nearly like it. We have to promote growth and democratization, even if it creates a new caste system based on inequities in wealth within countries or a new-class of have-nots, as in have-not healthcare, have-not education. ”AIDS is a catastrophe,” Dr. Pritchett told the New York Times several years ago. ”And it’s not fair, if treatments exist, not to give them to all these people who are dying. But it’s also not fair that more than a third of children in Africa are malnourished. It’s not fair that maybe 140 babies in every 1,000 will die before the age of 1, and more than a third will never learn to read. All of it is unfair. Unfairness is not the test for action.” For Dr. Pritchett the test for action is about economic growth. We wait for AIDS drugs, we wait for better schools. It will all come along if we all just wait for growth and democratization—as they write about in the textbooks—to arrive like manna from heaven.

Our work in AIDS, Jim Kim’s work in AIDS, on TB has been about transforming the world for the better, not out of some charitable impulse, sneered at by Dr. Pritchett, but because we have a vision for what the world should look like, about what governments should and should not do for their people; about what to expect from, what we can demand in terms of delivery of public services; about our role as active citizens, not waiting for experts or politicians to come and save us. This is national development, about polity, administration, and society. But it really doesn’t matter to Dr. Pritchett—we have all made a cardinal sin, which was to ask too much of our leaders, to question whether some idealized notion of free markets and free elections are all we need be asking for to secure a future for our children, whether the prescriptions of economists will deliver in the end for ordinary people.

Economists have gotten a bad rap lately, with so many of them having been so spectacularly wrong about so many things around the origins of the current worldwide economic crisis and its aftermath. Some of this in the end is about economics status as a science, about protecting a discipline that is deeply political, but strives to cloak itself with objectivity. Someone like Jim Kim, trained in the biomedical sciences, trained to rely on hard endpoints, is a threat is a more fundamental sense, as he doesn’t take the laws of economics as equivalent to the laws of gravity, to the central dogma of molecular biology or the germ theory of disease.

To be fair, there are economists who recognize that their field is contingent, more inexact, and are raising serious questions about the rigor of their assumptions, about over-reliance on models, the need for a far better quality of evidence, far beyond the sub-specialty of global development. These are the kinds of people, the fresh voices and thinking, one could see coming to the Bank under Kim’s leadership. Kim is also trained as an anthropologist as well; he knows there a variety of tools with which to see the world as long as you know their limitations. Dr. Pritchett and his colleagues don’t have this humility, they have their certainty, that they know what is right, what is needed, what should be done. This is what scares me most of all.

In the end, Jim Kim represents a national development perspective, but a critical one. For Pritchett, national development is about economy, polity, administration, and society. Kim’s work has certainly centered around the last three of these and he will bring a critical eye to the first. I am sure Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is brilliant. I am not quite sure she represents much more than a reification of traditional ideas about development, has sufficient distance from things to offer a critique, bring change. She is the establishment’s choice, even if she hails from Africa. As others have said, including economists like John Bates Clark medal winner Daron Acemoglu from MIT, the opposition to Kim all seems like a strange defense of business as usual from people who have been critics of the Bank in the past.

TOPICS:  Health

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