April 11, 2012

Paul Farmer is a professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder, with Jim Yong Kim and others, of Partners in Health. John Gershman is a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. 

President Obama’s nomination of Jim Yong Kim to be president of the World Bank is a powerful choice for an institution charged with addressing some of the world’s toughest challenges. Chief among these is to help developing economies achieve sustained growth by ensuring that its benefits are broadly shared.

Recent claims from some economists that Kim is “anti-growth” are based on a willful misreading and selective reporting of passages from Kim’s co-edited volume “Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor,” to which we both contributed. Any reasonable reading of the book indicates that “Dying for Growth” is pro-growth, raising questions about particular policies and patterns of growth that exclude the great majority of people living in poverty. Hence the double entendre in the title.

The book must be placed in its historical context. In the 1990s, when the book was researched and written, too many of the world’s poorest had been left behind by the growth of the global economy. The reigning view then was that growth and globalization would more or less take care of the poor and that inequality in particular was not an important issue. Not all boats were lifted by unequal growth.

The book’s objective was to ask questions about what types of growth and what kinds of policies were beneficial for those struggling to lift themselves out of poverty. The people we spoke of as “left behind” were not a tiny minority of our planet’s inhabitants but, rather, the many families we encountered every day in our clinics and hospitals in Haiti, Rwanda, Peru and the United States. Under-investment in basic services for the poor — including health care, education and access to credit — perpetuated their exclusion.

Thanks in part to Kim’s trailblazing work, development approaches have changed.  As the introduction to the World Bank’s 2006 World Development Report notes, “we now have considerable evidence that equity is also instrumental to the pursuit of long-term prosperity in aggregate terms for society as a whole.” Today there are greater investments in areas such as health and education, which help countries grow.

Questions about inclusive growth remain important in the 21st-century debate over development policy. In our view, these are precisely the issues that governments and international financial institutions should have been asking all along. And in fact, the global financial crisis and recent upheavals known as the Arab Spring remind us how critical the challenge of inclusive growth is.

That’s why the Obama administration’s nomination of Kim is nothing short of inspired, as leaders in countries rich and poor, such as former president Bill Clinton, Haitian President Michel Martelly, Japanese finance minister Jun Azumi, and others, have noted.

We have more examples of what not to do than ideas of what to do. George Soros (no opponent of growth) had this in mind when he wrote that we live in the age of fallibility: “Recognizing that our understanding of the world in which we live is inherently imperfect (fallible for short) constitutes a major step forward.” In other words, we are more likely to see growth strategies benefit the poor if we ask the sort of questions that Kim and colleagues asked. The conclusion of “Dying for Growth” contained an explicit call for research on the relationships among growth, inequality, poverty and health.

That stance — of asking hard questions rather than assuming the answers — is a valuable one for whoever is at the helm of the World Bank or any development institution. We would argue that it is precisely this humility that has been missing for too long among those who claim to have a clear prescription for ending poverty. Jim Yong Kim is a physician and leader who has dedicated his life to advancing development — seeking brisk economic growth and ensuring that the most vulnerable also benefit. Lifting people out of poverty was and is precisely the mandate with which the World Bank was founded. Now, at last, we have a nominee with the experience and humility to move this agenda forward.