The Common Good

Obama Nominates Physician, Global Health Expert to Head World Bank

 Photo via Getty Images.
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, nominee for president of the World Bank, at the White House Friday 3/23/12. Photo via Getty Images.

In a move that surprised many in the world of economics and politics, on Friday morning President Obama nominated Jim Yong Kim, the South Korea-born physician, anthropologist and president of Dartmouth College, to be the next president of the World Bank.

Prior to taking the helm at Dartmouth in 2009, Kim, 52, led the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School, of which he is a graduate. Widely considered one of the leading minds in world health, Kim also has served as a director of the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organization, where he focused on helping developing countries improve treatment and prevention programs.

Obama called Kim, “an innovative leader whose groundbreaking work to fight disease and combat poverty has saved lives around the globe.” The President said Kim is exceptionally well qualified for the position but brings “more to the role than an impressive record of designing new ways to solve entrenched problems.

“Development is his lifetime commitment, and it is his passion,” Obama said. “And in a world with so much potential to improve living standards, we have a unique opportunity to harness that passion and experience at the helm of the World Bank.”

Kim’s research also includes work on cutting the cost of treatment for tuberculosis and finding treatments for drug-resistant strains of the infection that claims the lives of 200 children every day, most of them in the developing world. (Saturday is World Tuberculosis Day, by the way.)

Kim will succeed Robert Zoellick, the former managing director of Goldman Sachs who President George W. Bush nominated to the World Bank position (succeeding Paul Wolfowitz) in 2007. Zoellick announced last month that he would be stepping down from the bank position when his five-year term expires in late June.

The Washington Post calls Kim’s nomination, “a move that would turn the organization over to a physician and development expert as opposed to the bankers, corporate leaders and political officials who have run it since its founding.”

According to the LA Times
, Kim’s nomination surprised many observers because, while his august work in infectious diseases — including the global AIDS emergency and TB — is well-known and lauded, he is a relative unknown in financial and political circles.

“But the appointment of the South Korean-born Kim may also deflect criticisms from developing economies of the United States having a lock on the World Bank's top position,” the L.A. Times reports.

Perceived frontrunners for the World Bank presidency included Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (who also was nominated on Friday for the post by three African nations — Angola, South Africa and Nigeria) and Jeffrey Sachs, a high-profile economist who head’s the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Sachs had actively campaigned for the position, arguing that the World Bank should be led by a development expert, withdrew his candidacy Friday after the announcement of Kim’s nomination, saying (via Twitter): “Jim Kim is a superb nominee for WB. I support him 100%. I thank all who supported me and know they'll be very pleased with today's news.”

Okonjo-Iweala was the managing director of the World Bank from 2007 to 2011, when she was appointed Nigeria’s finance minister — the first woman to hold the position. The Harvard-educated Okonjo-Iweala earned her doctorate in regional economic development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981.

Speaking at a news conference Friday, Okonjo-Iweala said "I consider the World Bank a very important institution for the world, and particularly for developing countries deserving of the best leadership, so I look forward to a contest of very strong candidates…. And am I confident? Absolutely.”

However, Kim’s confirmation as World Bank president is essentially a formality. While the bank has 187 member nations, the United States holds nearly 16 percent of the voting power, followed by Japan (with 6.8 percent), China, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.

Traditionally, an American has led the World Bank, while a European (currently Christine Lagarde of France) heads the related organization, the International Monetary Fund. Both institutions were created at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference (aka the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference) in an effort to regulate international trade and development in the wake of World War II and the Great Depression.

Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1959, Kim immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 5 years old and grew up in Muscatine, Iowa. Kim’s father was a dentist and taught at the University of Iowa, where his mother earned her doctorate in philosophy, according to his biography on the Dartmouth website. He attended Muscatine high school where was quarterback on the football team and valedictorian of his graduating class.

Kim went on to attend Brown University, graduating magna cum laude in 1982 and Harvard Medical School, where he earned an M.D. in 1991. In 1993, Kim also earned a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University. He is married to Dr. Younsook Lim, a pediatrician, with whom he has two young sons.

Upon his appointment as Dartmouth’s 17th president, Kim became the first Asian to head an Ivy League University.

Among his myriad academic and professional achievements, Dartmouth lists the following:

He led an academic consortium of more than a dozen institutions in developing a World Health Organization report, “Interactions Between Global Health Initiatives and Health Systems: Evidence From Countries.” It was presented in June 2009 to the G8 Development Ministers’ Meeting in Italy. Through his work with PIH and WHO, President Kim has helped to demonstrate that individuals previously viewed as untreatable can be treated effectively, even in impoverished settings. He led the 3 by 5 initiative at WHO, which sought to treat 3 million new HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries with antiretroviral drugs by 2005. Launched in September 2003, the ambitious program ultimately reached its goal in 2007. While working with PIH in Lima, Peru, in the mid-1990s, President Kim helped to develop a treatment program for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), which represented the first large-scale treatment of this disease in a poor country. Today, treatment programs for MDR-TB are in place in more than 40 nations. President Kim also spearheaded the successful effort to reduce the price of the drugs used to treat this form of tuberculosis. Kim also is one of the founders and former executive director of the Boston-based organization Partners in Health, which works with impoverished communities in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, and the United States to provide medical care and social services.

“When we reduce hunger in the world, or help a farmer recover from a flood or a drought, it strengthens the entire world economy,” Obama said. “When we put an end to a preventable disease, all of us are safer because of it.  When an entrepreneur can start a new business, it creates jobs in their country, but also opens up new markets for our country.  And ultimately, when a nation goes from poverty to prosperity, it makes the world stronger and more secure for everybody.

“That’s why the World Bank is so important.  And that’s why the leader of the World Bank should have a deep understanding of both the role that development plays in the world, and the importance of creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed,” the President said. “I believe that nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission than Dr. Jim Kim.”

Several leaders are hailing Kim’s nomination. Former President Bill Clinton called Kim an “outstanding choice.”

“He will be the most experienced development expert to ever take the helm of the World Bank,” Clinton said.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame said he was “delighted” to hear of Kim’s nomination. “He is a true friend of Africa and well known for his decade of work to support us in developing an efficient health system in Rwanda,” Kagame said. “He’s not only a physician and a leader who knows what it takes to address poverty, but also a genuinely good person.”

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.

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