By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jim Yong Kim, the U.S. nominee to lead the World Bank, will win broad international support despite an unprecedented challenge by candidates from emerging economies, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in an interview.
Washington's hold on the World Bank presidency is being contested for the first time by candidates from emerging economies. Two respected economists and diplomats, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, have been nominated.
Kim, a Korean-American health expert, is well known among development experts for his work in fighting HIV/AIDS and bringing healthcare to the poor. President Barack Obama nominated him for World Bank president on Friday.
"The president was looking for a candidate who could command broad support across the world," Geithner told Reuters in an interview released on Saturday. "That's very important, because we don't make this decision alone."
"Dr. Kim's mix of skills will be particularly compelling to the bank at this time and I think the world will be very impressed with him," he said.
Emerging economies such as China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Russia have sought to use their growing economic clout to pry open the selection process for the heads of the World Bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund.
The World Bank has always been headed by an American and the IMF by a European since their inception after World War Two.
Geithner said it was not a surprise that candidates from other countries had been nominated after a 2009 agreement by leaders of the Group of 20 nations for an open and transparent process to select leaders of the two institutions.
"We expected that to happen and think it is healthy for the institution as a whole," Geithner said. "But I can tell you from my conversations with developing and developed countries, I am confident he (Kim) will win broad support."
U.S. officials have acknowledged that giving up the World Bank presidency would make it difficult for the White House to obtain funding from Congress for the global lender, especially with lawmakers worried about mounting budget deficits.
The United States has also argued that it does not head any other global organization.
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After a broad search that looked at U.S. bankers, economists and politicians, Obama settled on Kim because the Dartmouth College president has a deep commitment to development issues, Geithner said. In particular, he cited Kim's experience in programs to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in impoverished nations, which he said demonstrated that the nominee could get things done in tough environments.
In coming weeks, Kim will visit nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America to try to convince them he is the best candidate to lead the poverty-fighting institution, U.S. officials said.
Kim was recommended to Obama by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, officials said. Kim and his long-time collaborator Paul Farmer worked with former President Clinton on reconstruction efforts in Haiti following a devastating earthquake in 2010.
The White House has acknowledged it considered candidates tied more closely to Washington political circles, including U.S. Senator John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and former White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers.
"The president wanted somebody who had defined their life through a commitment to the cause of development but had also demonstrated an ability to solve complex problems in a creative way," said Geithner, a Dartmouth alumnus who played a lead role in the search for a successor for outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
Kim's development successes involving HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and the provision of inexpensive medicine to the poor have received wide praise. However, some development experts say he lacks the economic credentials and diplomatic skills of rival nominees Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo.
While the World Bank's mission remains focused on eradicating poverty, the rise of some once poorer clients such as China and India have forced it to also focus on impediments to development in emerging economies, including power supply and governance issues.
Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo would bring more expertise in these areas, some development economists say. A senior Obama administration official said the bank has ample expertise and what is needed at the top is someone who can get things done.
The World Bank is involved in the design of health systems in developing countries, but its funding and influence in the area has been eclipsed by groups such as the Geneva-based Global Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Geithner said Kim has "an incredible feel for what matters most in development and recognizes that for economies to grow they have to invest in expanding opportunities for their people, in healthcare and in education."
"Those are lessons that the most successful emerging and developing countries have learned and been forced to learn, and in that sense he has the ideal feel," Geithner added. "His experience comes from what he has done in the field, not just from his academic research."
People who had worked with Kim were impressed by his ability to handle complicated situations in tough environments such as Haiti, Geithner said. In Haiti, Kim was credited with persuading the government to take steps to avoid an outbreak of tuberculosis.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Paul Simao)