a collection of a few possible relevant articles (II): beyond sachs to karaoke and stuff

The discussion on the Bank President seems to have moved to a slightly more productive place now that the nominations are (nearly) out. That is, to humility, insider-ness, and karaoke.


The remaining uber-challenges of development—finding new ways to encourage private sector growth, delivering services in the world’s toughest places, creating incentives for better governance—are all objectives that will require creativity and learning-by-failing. This means finding new ways to encourage innovation and experimentation by staff and clients.

The field still doesn’t understand the development process very well and we certainly can’t predict the impact of various interventions in complex social, political, and economic systems. We need to try, test, tweak, and then try some more.

The head of the World Bank doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room or the one with a ready-made Best Plan Ever… The candidate should be someone with a model in mind that enables risk-taking and iterative approaches. If the World Bank is going to help find solutions to the lingering problems of global poverty and underdevelopment, its next President must be a person that comes to the job with a willingness to experiment and a heavy dose of, dare I say it, humility.


Rather than listening to the Washington Consensus, many developing countries took matters into their own hands at the turn of the century. Since then the developing world has grown faster than the rich, reduced poverty significantly and avoided the worst of the financial crisis that originated in the US. It would be ironic for the US to dictate the appointment at the World Bank in such an environment.


The World Bank is a full-service development institutions that provides loans and grants and development advice to promote development, which is the transformation of countries towards prosperous economies that support broad based improvements in material well-being, democratic polities that respect citizen rights and respond to citizen demands, and capable administrations that allow governments to carry out their core functions—law and order, education, macro-economic management, health, infrastructure, regulation, security.

Therefore an ideal candidate should have:

  • some experience in government and the process of policy-making (as the World Bank’s clients are all governments),
  • some acquaintance with economic policy and policy making—including the tough choices like allocation of resources across uses,
  • some knowledge of finance (it is, after all, a bank that makes income from lending money),
  • some management experience in a multilateral organization,
  • some exposure to the breadth of development issues.


OK, building from this last link — I have held a lot of different views about Jim Kim over the past many years of my schooling and involvement in public health but there are still some reasons why I think he could be good for the Bank. Among them, I appreciate his willingness to not just critique global agencies (WHO, Bank) and advocate for change but to accept positions within them and try to make a change.

However, suggesting that because he is a doctor he understands RCTs and is in support of evaluation is a serious over-reach. In fact, willingness to be evaluated and humility about their model is one of the easiest and most important critiques to be made of Partners in Health and, by perhaps-not-totally-fair implication, Jim Kim (PIH is beginning to try to rectify this – but nevertheless). Jim may have been more open and honest about his time at the WHO and 3×5 efforts, though one hopes we actually can do more than apologize and point out that the odds were against us.

A lot of ink and ego-juice has been spilled about whether the Bank’s past efforts have done more harm than good. Kim clearly leans toward one end of this argument. For policies as large-scale and not-done-in-a-vacuum as the Bank’s, either side will always be hard to prove – or even to consider objectively. However, I think most people can agree that the Bank’s efforts have not always done all the good they were expected to do, even if everyone had been totally committed to honestly appraising them. Which they have not.

In light of this, the list of qualities needed by the next President presents quite a tall order — an awesome manager that commands credibility and trust while also fostering creativity, risk-taking, learning-by-failure, humility — and remaining un-committed to any one ideology, economic or otherwise. To say, “we are going to try this is and we are not really sure if it is going to work,” is hard for anyone – from a mechanic, to hair stylist, to a doctor, to someone proposing to ‘tinker’ with a country’s economic, political, health, and other systems – such as those systems are in place and functioning. But, that is what we are up against. The randomista movement may be an expression of us not “understand[ing] the development process very well” but it still doesn’t fully help us overcome the challenge of “predict[ing] the impact of various interventions in complex social, political, and economic systems” – and eventually we do need to scale-up and that will always be hard to perfectly plan and evaluate (although, could Gary King at least get a small shout-out on this?). That said, a commitment to trying to monitor and evaluate it and a willingness to admit when things aren’t working, and investigating why they are not, is crucial. I think these qualities are something that we need to hear about all the candidates.

And, given the tallness of the order, maybe karaoke skills are really the best we can hope for. It is not the only time Jim Kim has overcome a challenge through karaoke – and I can think of a few countries to whom we probably owe a “Say Anything” moment. So, more on that about the candidates, too, please.

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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