I’ve been conspicuously silent on the matter of who would or should succeed Robert Zoellick as President of the World Bank. This was because I was convinced that it was coming down to a Hobson’s choice between two narcissistic, white male economists: Larry Summers, former World Bank chief economist, infamous for composing an internal memo in which he outlined the pristine economic logic of exporting industrial waste to the Third World; and Jeffrey Sachs, an self-nominated development diva who hangs out with rock stars and is really high on bed nets and the “big push for aid”. A few other intriguing, but unlikely candidates were in the mix, including both Bill and Hilary Clinton and Susan Rice. But all told, over the last month it appeared we were headed down a woefully predictable path: despite the spate of calls to relinquish the near-70 year old gentleman’s agreement to let the US run the World Bank and the Europeans run the IMF, an American would be nominated, many developing countries would oppose (but ultimately fail to united behind a viable alternative), the Europeans would vote strategically to back whomever the US wanted in order to secure their stronghold on the IMF. Voila: status quo. There really didn’t seem much to say on the matter, and I was too frustrated to try.

The President Obama’s pick yesterday of Jim Yong Kim was a surprise to everyone, including me. And it is an extremely clever choice. Dr. Kim, born in South Korea, appears to check the box of “from the developing world”, even though he moved to the US at the age of 5 and South Korea is no longer a developing country (in fact, it is now a full fledged member of the OECD). But he is also American, which may placate many who fear that a non-American pick would further weaken Congressional support for multilateral aid appropriations and undermine US influence in this important international organization. Dr. Kim is also a medical doctor and anthropologist, with real development experience working in developing countries and running the department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization. He co-founded Partners in Health, alongside Paul Farmer. And apparently he is a really nice, self-deprecating guy who can rap and carry a tune, as evident in this video that went viral over the last 24 hours.

But is Dr. Kim the ideal candidate to run the World Bank, and is his selection now a foregone conclusion?

That will certainly be the key topic of discussion over the next few weeks running up to the World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings. As President of Dartmouth College, he has administrative experience, although running a small, elite liberal arts college is nothing like leading a complex multicultural international institution with over 10,000 permanent staff and over 100 mission offices world wide. Moreover, Dr. Kim’s experience in development is limited to the health sector, whereas the World Bank’s lending portfolio (over $43 billion in 2011) spans everything from the health and education sector to energy and mining, transportation, governance and anticorruption, and finance. The World Bank president has a demanding job: he (or she, someday) must constantly navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, simultaneously working with the Bank’s 25 Executive Directors and the Bank’s increasingly decentralized management and staff. This latter task is akin to herding the cats, which is actually where Kim’s academic administrative experience may prove very useful, but the former task requires considerable political gravitas.

Most importantly, the World Bank President must lead an institution that for the past twenty years has been increasingly beleaguered by a tripartite crisis of legitimacy, relevance, and effectiveness. The World Bank is currently facing shifts in the global balance of power and the landscape of international aid. This is fundamentally challenging its core business model and making it more dependent on funding from emerging market economies who used to be aid recipients but are now net donors. The next World Bank President must not only adapt to new ways of thinking about and pursuing development, he (or she) must also continue to build on Zoellick’s Open Development and Open Data initiatives, which will make all of this unfold in a much more transparent and accountable environment. In short, Kim will need to demonstrate that he not only has impressive experience in fighting global epidemic diseases. He must also demonstrate that he grasps the political complexities of a rapidly changing aid industry and the political savvy to run an institution that is dead center on the radar screens of many wishing to demolish development aid as we know it. Can Kim lead the World Bank firmly in the right direction and ensure its institutional survival?

Throughout all of this, it is important to keep in mind that for the first time in World Bank history, there are two highly qualified and viable candidates from developing countries in the race: Jose Antonio Ocampo (former Finance Minister of Colombia and now a professor at Columbia University) and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (current Finance Minister of Nigeria). Their experiences working as and with finance ministers give them both tremendous advantages in this job, which demands constant interaction with developing and developed country finance ministers. And by many accounts, Okonjo-Iweala is near perfect for the job because she also served as a Managing Director of the World Bank from 2007 to 2011. This means she is intimately familiar with the exceedingly complex internal and external politics of the Bank and thus particularly well suited to leading this organization through inevitable reforms. [note: Kevin Gallagher, my co-editor at Review of International Political Economy, provides a convincing case for Ocampo here].

The news cycle of the last 24 hours seems to indicate that support for Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala will now quickly dissipate in the face of Kim’s nomination. But I am waiting to see. If, by (slim) chance, developing countries on the Bank’s Board decide to unite behind one candidate, it may well be that we’ll finally see a real race for the World Bank presidency.

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