Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s pick to head the World Bank for the next five years, is an old friend, so don’t look for any objective journalism here.
But I would say it’s an inspired and groundbreaking move.
By groundbreaking, I don’t mean because Kim would be the first person from a minority community to head the bank, although that is significant. Kim’s appointment as the first Asian-American to head an Ivy League university — he was named president of Dartmouth College in 2009 — was a source of pride to many Asian-Americans, and Korean-Americans in particular.
But Kim’s appointment to head the Bank is pioneering for a different reason. The mission of the World Bank is to help lift people out of poverty, and Kim will be the first bank leader who has dedicated most of his professional life to working with and for the world’s poor.
With another pioneering physician-anthropologist, Dr. Paul Farmer, Kim established an organization dedicated to treating poor people in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and beyond. The founding principle of Partners in Health was that everyone is entitled to first-class health care, no matter where they live or how poor they are.
The significance of Partners was that it didn’t just declare that as a principle: Farmer and Kim proved, in the face of many doubters and over the course of many years of hard work, that first-class health care can be delivered, respectfully, in the poorest precincts of the poorest countries. One of its key innovations was to enlist the poor themselves into the health system, training community workers to make sure, for example, that patients take their TB or AIDS medicines every day. (Further bias alert: My father, Dr. Howard Hiatt, has been another key player in Partners’ success.) This story is chronicled most famously in Tracy Kidder’s bestselling book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003).
Kim, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in 2003, showed that the Partners method could scale up when, as an executive at the World Health Organization from 2003 through 2005, he helped vastly expand the number of people in Africa receiving treatment for AIDS.
Now he will get a chance to scale up another notch.
“The World Bank is potentially far more decisive than a bank,” Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, wrote in The Post this month. “At its best, the bank serves as a powerhouse of ideas and a meeting ground for key actors who together can solve daunting problems of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation.”
Sachs wrote that in proposing his own candidacy, an offer that Obama did not pick up on. But Kim’s appointment appropriately recognizes that the nature of the bank has changed and needs to change more.
Past World Bank presidents have included many eminent men, beginning in 1946 with a former publisher of this newspaper, Eugene Meyer. There have been politicians (Barber Conable), defense strategists (Robert McNamara and Paul Wolfowitz), lawyer-diplomats (John J. McCloy and the incumbent, Robert Zoellick) and a half-dozen bankers.
Most of them, however brilliant they were, had to learn on the job about the challenges of poverty and development. That won’t be a problem for Kim.
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