Asia Catalyst

[COMMENTARY] Why Economists Are Jumping on the Jim Kim-Bashing Bandwagon

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By 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 and well-known.   Though his views are his own, they have been amplified by other leading development economists, such as William Easterly at New York University and people associated with the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC.


Over the past few weeks, Pritchett has publicly questioned Kim's qualifications, saying a lack of training in economics and experience in world finance should disqualify him from the post. He has further suggested that Kim's nomination shows  the arrogance and hegemony of American power over the institution.  He has called for Kim to 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, also finance minister of Nigeria) would presumably sweep to victory.


A few days ago, Pritchett wrote an article in the New Republic (TNR) which comes clean about the real reasons for the escalating, grasping campaign of opposition to Jim Kim. The piece is called "Why Obama's World Bank Pick Is Proving So Controversial."   The title is an overreach:  It should really read "Why Obama's World Bank Pick Is Proving So Controversial to Me and My Friends." 

Jim Kim has extensive support around the world for his candidacy, but it is vital for us to understand Pritchett's objections because they boil down to what we think "development" is. 


Pritchett's article 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 when national development fails, where "these idealists and the organizations they run...[help] 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, and thus not fit to run the Bank, which should focus on national development alone.  However, Dr. Pritchett is deeply myopic. 


First, while many people have been lifted out of poverty over the past century due to economic growth, inequity remains pervasive.  We are well on our way to creating a new transnational economic elite--or what I like to call "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, our global experience in the fight against HIV/AIDS is in fact, that political responsiveness and accountability, better governance and administration can and do grow out of the progress we make in mobilizing people to demand their right to health.  The global AIDS movement 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." 


Pritchett has previously and vociferously complained that the provision of ART in the developing world is a prime example of palliative humane development and misguided philanthropy.  But for those of us who have watched more closely, the movement for treatment access has in fact all been about Pritchett's "polity, administration, and society." 


For Pritchett and his peers, Jim Kim is a crazed, lefty, charity worker who pushed pills on Africa.  They refuse to see what Kim did, what we all did, as critical to their own professed goal of 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 are they unable to see this? Well, 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.  After World War Two, Europe, Canada, Australia and even the US offered a safety net for the poor and the sick, and saw this safety net as a core state responsibility.  


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."


Beginning with Clinton's "welfare reform" in the 1990s, and continuing on with the current, slow dismantling of the UK's health system by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, states began getting out of the business of helping the poor and sick.  These political choices derive from larger intellectual frameworks, constructed largely by economists, that argue that healthcare is not a "public good" but that it is like a loaf of bread, one consumes it privately).  These frameworks propose that states only invest in things that provide broad-based benefits, such as economic growth and defense.  In this brave new world, the models for national development are the austerity-crazed states in Europe, or a Republican vision of the US in which we slash social protection programs and cut public spending to appease the gods of growth. 


For Lant Pritchett and a generation of development economists, all heirs to Thomas Malthus, you can't have it all (or anything nearly like it all).   We have to promote growth and democratization, even if doing so creates a new caste system based on inequities in wealth.  ''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. ... Unfairness is not the test for action.'' 


For Dr. Pritchett, the test for action is economic growth.  We wait for AIDS drugs, we wait for better schools. It will all come along if we just wait for growth and democratization--as the economics textbooks tell us--to arrive like manna from heaven. 


Recently, economists have been spectacularly wrong about so many things when it comes to the current worldwide economic crisis and its aftermath. Some of the attacks against Jim Kim in the end are also about the defense of Economics as a science, about protecting a discipline that strives to cloak itself in objectivity even though it is in fact deeply political. Someone like Jim Kim, trained in the biomedical sciences, trained to rely on hard endpoints, is a fundamental threat exactly because he doesn't take the laws of economics as equivalent to the laws of gravity or molecular biology.  


To be fair, there are economists who do recognize that their field is contingent and inexact, and who are raising serious questions about the rigor of their assumptions, about their discipline's over-reliance on models.  They are calling for a far better quality of evidence.  These debates take place far beyond the sub-specialty of global development.  These are the kinds of people, the kinds of fresh voices and new thinking, that one could see coming to the Bank under Kim's leadership.  Kim is also trained as an anthropologist.  He knows there are a variety of lenses with which to see the world and that each has its limitations.  Dr. Pritchett and his economist colleagues don't have this humility.  They have certainty, they believe they know what is right and what should be done. That is what scares me most of all.  


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. In the end, Jim Kim represents a national development perspective that is capable of critical thinking.


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, or that she has sufficient distance from these ideas to offer a critique or bring change. 


Our work in AIDS, like Jim Kim's work on AIDS and TB, has been about transforming the world for the better--not out of a charitable impulse, but because we have a vision of what the world should look like; about what governments should and should not do for their people; about what we can demand in terms of delivery of public services; about our role as active citizens who will not wait for experts or politicians to come and save us.  This is a vision of national development that includes polity, administration, and society.  It is one that dares to question whether some idealized notion of free markets and free elections are all we need to secure a future for our children, whether the prescriptions of economists will deliver for ordinary people in the end.  



Gregg Gonsalves is an Open Society Foundations Fellow.

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