Politics, World

A global citizen of frightening intellect, World Bank’s probable new leader is no shrinking violet

A global citizen of frightening intellect, World Bank’s probable new leader is no shrinking violet

Dr Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth College president, former World Health Organisation senior manager, YouTube star and an all-American boy born in Korea, has recently been nominated by Barack Obama to be the newest leader of the World Bank, taking over when Robert Zoellick’s term comes to an end in June. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks behind the headlines to get a fuller picture of Kim the man.

In an era when there has been growing criticism over the usual run of World Bank heads from America, Dr Jim Yong Kim is different in almost every way from previous bank heads – even as he has become a frequent presence on those annual “Most Influential World Figures” lists.

Instead of being one of those senior government officials getting a respectful reassignment to round out a long – and sometimes controversial – career (as with Robert McNamara or Paul Wolfowitz), Kim is the head of one of America’s most prestigious small universities – Dartmouth College. Instead of experience as a banker or international lawyer, Kim is a medical doctor, an anthropologist and a veteran of World Health Organisation TB and HIV/Aids interventions worldwide. And instead of being one of those nice, normal White Anglo-Saxon Protestants like most former World Bank heads were, Kim is a naturalised American citizen whose parents emigrated from Korea when Kim was a small child, settling in small town Iowa.

Besides his multiple degrees and shelf of international awards and honours over his international development work in health care issues, this guy also received one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, where the foundation gives recipients a huge chunk of money to do whatever they want to do, in recognition of their sheer brain power, achievements and ingenuity.

But Kim is certainly no bland, shrinking violet of a highly educated international health care administrator. His star turn in the campus version of the Idols TV show was a spaceman rap while wearing a day-glow costume is a viral YouTube hit – watch it for yourself at:

Kim had the preternatural good fortune to grow up in Muscatine, Iowa – the very same town held in such high regard by Chinese government-top-man-apparent, Xi Jinping.

Is it a total coincidence that the Chinese national news agency, Xinhua, praised Kim’s nomination? Xinhua’s commentary said “It is encouraging for US President Barack Obama to pick Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College and former director of the HIV/Aids department at the World Health Organisation, as the US candidate who is very likely to take over the helm of the international development organisation… It can also be taken as a kind of improvement for Washington to choose a development expert, instead of politicians or bankers, to lead the World Bank.”

Xinhua did offer one disappointment, saying “the very fact that yet another American citizen will lead the global poverty-reducing organisation again more than six decades after its founding is still disappointing to many around the world”. Overall though, that doesn’t sound like the Chinese will vote against him, does it?

In fact, just about all of Kim’s attributes seem to have been precisely tailored to address criticisms of previous American heads of the World Bank. And he has an unusual sense of humility about his achievements, too. For example, some six years ago when it became clear the World Health Organisation would not reach its goals in greatly expanding global access to vital antiretroviral drugs, as WHO’s chief HIV and Aids strategist, Kim told journalists “All we can do is apologise. I think we have to just admit we’ve not done enough and we started way too late.” Now when was the last time you heard a bureaucrat say something like that to the world?

Rewind back to the beginnings. Kim was born in 1959 in South Korea and his dentist father and theology student mother moved to Muscatine – an unusual destination for Asian immigrants – when the future nominee was five years old. In high school he was top of his class and class president, he played quarterback (roughly the team’s playmaker and captain) for the school’s football team and he was a point guard for the school’s basketball team.

Admitted to another Ivy League university, Brown, he then went to Harvard for a medical degree and a PhD in anthropology. That latter qualification may have helped a bit to seal the deal for Kim with Obama. Kim’s nomination to head the world’s most important financial – and development – institution might be seen as a kind of homage to his mother who was also an anthropologist. Sydney Dunham had studied micro-lending in Indonesian women’s community development projects in an effort to really get under the skin of economic development at the local level.

Close observers of Kim’s career trajectory say his views on global development issues were shaped by his time in Peruvian townships, the countryside of Haiti, post-genocide Rwanda and freezing Siberia. As Kim himself said during his 2009 inaugural speech as Dartmouth College president, “In my small way, I’ve tried to make the world’s troubles my troubles. I’ve tackled them directly by setting treatment programs, working to lower the prices of lifesaving drugs and changing global policy.”

When he was in Haiti, he worked with a group of physicians to pioneer efforts to provide lifesaving care to Aids patients and the group then went on to establish the highly-regarded NGO, Partners in Health in 1987. Kim served as the body’s executive director and remains on the board of the Boston-based non-profit, which works in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi and the United States. Remembering those Haitian experiences, Kim said critics “said it was impossible. Forget it. Completely impractical. And we started doing it in Haiti. And now we have close to four million people in the poorest countries receiving treatment for HIV.”

This was the can-do, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude Kim brought to WHO in 2003, first as special adviser to then director-general Lee Jong-wook and then as head of WHO’s HIV and Aids department. He focused on ramping up prevention, treatment and care programs in developing countries. Along the way, Kim also chaired the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School before becoming president of Dartmouth College. US News and World Report named him one of the “25 Best Leaders” in America in 2005 and that was followed by Time’s identification of him the next year as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”.

Assuming World Bank shareholders select him, speculation is already starting over what changes Kim would bring the bank. For starters, of course, he would probably aim for more focus on global health in a more comprehensive way, especially given his belief in the importance of collaborative activity between donors and recipients, between local and national authorities, and between the public and private sectors.
In his work, Kim has emphasised the interdisciplinary work that can transform health systems and economies. He wrote “The real rocket science in health care is how you organize human beings to actually deliver what we already have, and deliver that which would be new, which would come down the path inevitably.”

Kim would take over just as the bank’s role in international cooperation is shifting. Under Zoellick’s tenure, the World Bank gained a much-needed capital increase; developing countries have gained significant voting power in the bank’s governance, and the bank’s reservoir of international economic and development data has now been made accessible to the public.

The next World Bank president will need to cope with high priority, high-risk questions such as the bank’s role in advancing good governance and clean energy usage – just for starters. In fact, the bank’s role as a lender has changed as more nations can now access international financial markets for needed funds – unless there is another international financial and capital crisis. As a result, Kim may well be the right man for the right time. In saying “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency” that certainly seems Obama’s view.

There is that small matter of actually being selected for the job. This time around, the American nomination has bona fide competition. Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been nominated and supported by Nigeria, South Africa and Angola. She is also a Harvard graduate and has gained very high marks for restoring control over the country’s books and finances – as much as anybody has ever done. And Brazil has nominated José Antonio Ocampo, Colombia’s former finance minister. Slightly confusingly, Ocampo teaches at Columbia University, the one located in New York City, not South America.

Earlier speculation had it Obama might nominate economic development expert Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. Sachs had been openly campaigning for the job – unprecedented behaviour for someone who wants to be the head of the World Bank. Others suspected Obama would nominate his former economic advisor and head of Harvard University (at least until he tripped over his views of the place of women in academia). Other possible names were Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, senator John Kerry, and Indra Nooyi, head of PepsiCo, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson, an economist veteran of the Clinton administration. And there were even those who thought Obama would nominate to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, given her intent to step down from that job even if Obama won a second term.

Sources said Obama and his advisers considered more than a dozen candidates, but the president wanted someone with real development experience and he was attracted to Kim’s innovative work fighting the spread of Aids and tuberculosis. And so, in the end, it was Jim Yong Kim who got the nod.

As soon as Kim’s name was announced, Bill Clinton said “Jim Kim is an inspired and outstanding choice to lead the World Bank based on his years of commitment and leadership to development and particularly health care and Aids treatment across the world.” And Rwandan president Paul Kagame joined in, calling him “a true friend of Africa” and “a leader who knows what it takes to address poverty.” Then, wannabe nominee Jeffrey Sachs added “I support this nomination 100%, with my complete enthusiasm.” These endorsements will not hurt Kim’s chances.

Now that nominations are closed, the selection process is pretty straightforward. As there were only three nominations by the deadline, there will be interviews and then voting – without the need for a shortlist. Selecting the World Bank president is the job of the organisation’s board, made up of 25 representatives of the 187 member countries. Some countries have their own seats, such as the US and the UK. Others are grouped into larger constituencies. The goal is to choose a president by consensus, but if that is impossible, a simple majority will do it.

World Bank votes are weighted by financial contributions to the bank. The US has nearly 16% of the total vote and EU countries, together, a further 29%. As a result, smart money is obviously on Kim getting the job. He is assured of the US and UK vote and presumably Korean, Chinese, Japanese and probably support from most of Europe, following US backing of Christine Lagarde to head the International Monetary Fund after Dominique Strauss-Kahn unceremoniously surrendered his chair after that business in a New York hotel.

Kim’s elevation to this job should give the World Bank a renewed sense of purpose – and as well as some new tasks. This probably comes just in time as the bank receives increased criticism for its old ways of doing old things in a very changed world. DM

Read more:

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama introduces Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim as his nominee to be the next president of the World Bank, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on 23 March 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.