What the World Bank Needs

Yesterday’s appointment of Dr. Jim Yong Kim as World Bank president marks a remarkable departure from the past. Not only is Dr. Kim the first person of Asian descent to become president of the World Bank (he immigrated to the United States from South Korea at the age of 5) but unlike his predecessors who have been bankers, politicians, or technocrats, Dr. Kim has dedicated his life’s work to international development. He is the first to have in-the-field development experience as a physician and public health expert. As President Obama declared, “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world's largest development agency.” As students dedicated to international development, we could not agree more.

Since its birth in the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, the World Bank has favored conservative “free-market” policies with detrimental, unintended consequences for the poor. For instance, the countries that accepted structural adjustment loans—loans that were tied to strict neo-liberal reforms—guided by the World Bank were often forced to siphon money away from their health sector to avoid defaulting on their debt, ultimately resulting in further dependency on loans and further accumulation of debt. We applaud President Obama’s nomination and the bank board’s appointment of Dr. Kim as representing an important shift away from the neoliberal orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus.

Dr. Kim’s ideology reflects the World Bank’s broader mission of economic growth, while still recognizing the problematic ramifications of past World Bank policies. What makes Dr. Kim a profound thinker can be found in his seminal work, "Limited Good, Limited Vision." Dr. Kim was the first to fight back against the pervasive notion of “limited good,” which argues that funding more expensive development programs detracts from equally necessary, less-expensive initiatives. Dr. Kim urged the development community to move from “theories of limited good to theories and actions that are based on an understanding of the scale and importance of the problem.” Unlike his predecessors, who focus primarily on the cost-effectiveness of programs, Dr. Kim recognizes the underlying economic and moral imperatives of the World Bank to focus on equalizing efforts that invest in human beings. His vision of inclusive growth promotes long-term prosperity coupled with attempts to build equity and scale up community development successes.

Dr. Kim’s philosophies have been shaped by years of in-the-field experience, another reason that he is such an inspired choice for the World Bank presidency. As co-founder of Partners in Health, which delivers health care in resource poor settings, Dr. Kim has worked directly with the most marginalized populations of Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, Lesotho, and the United States. The geographic breadth of his work, ranging from capital cities to villages, demonstrates precisely the practical exposure to development that the World Bank president ought to wield. In his op-ed, Kim said, “I have confronted the forces that keep more than one billion people trapped in poverty.” He continued, “I want to hear from developing countries, as well as those that provide a big share of the resources to development, about how we can together build a more inclusive, responsive, and open World Bank.” Indeed, Dr. Kim’s practical experience as a physician to the global poor has shaped his vision of inclusivity and openness.

Dr. Kim’s determination to make the World Bank more inclusive reflects his leadership capacity. Despite his humility, Dr. Kim has proven that he is not afraid to challenge the status quo, an attribute that couldn’t be of greater importance in the realm of development economics, where models and orthodoxy often outweigh practical, scalable solutions. Dr. Kim fought against conventional wisdom that argued that PIH’s work was not cost-effective, in fact showing that health is the fundamental pillar to economic growth. When appointed advisor to the director-general of the World Health Organization, and later, director of the WHO’s HIV/AIDS department, Dr. Kim led the “3 by 5” initiative, designed to put 3 million people living with AIDS in developing nations on treatment by 2005.  Launched in 2003, the program reached its goal in 2007, demonstrating that individuals deemed untreatable could actually be treated effectively. Finally, Dr. Kim’s numerous positions within institutions of higher learning demonstrate his capacity for leadership. In 2009, Kim left his post at Harvard to become president of Dartmouth College, where he proved to be an astute leader, particularly in successfully handling the university’s budget crisis.

As members of the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition, which had the honor of having Dr. Kim as an advisor, we look to Dr. Kim as a visionary. When Dr. Kim co-taught Anthropology 1825: Case Studies in Global Health, he emphasized the importance of evidence-based rationality and intellectual rigor coupled with genuine compassion and inclusivity. We would be shocked if his critical eye does not create a noticeable change in the World Bank. Dr. Kim’s track record has demonstrated his ability to focus on the outcomes of development, rather than becoming trapped in the bureaucratic machinery of the processes behind it. We hope that Dr. Kim will lead and innovate with the fervor that we have always admired, bringing sustainable, equitable development to the communities that the World Bank has always claimed to serve.

Alyssa T. Yamamoto ’12 is a study of religion concentrator living in Dunster House. Isabel R. Ostrer ’14 is a social studies concentrator living in Quincy House. Cara S. Guenther ’13 is an anthropology concentrator living in Eliot House. They are members of the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition.