I’m surprised that “surprise” is a word being used to describe President Obama’s nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank.  Surprise, perhaps, over the specific name, because Dr. Kim hadn’t figured prominently in the speculation of who would replace current World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

But there should be no surprise over the intention of the nomination: to select someone who has been deeply and passionately immersed in development and poverty reduction efforts to run the world’s largest poverty-reduction institution.  In fact, it makes all the sense in the world.

As President Obama said today as he nominated Dr. Kim, “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.  It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”

Past leaders of the World Bank have been economists and trade specialists and defense experts and diplomats. Now comes Dr. Kim (traditionally, Washington selects the president of the World Bank, while the Europeans name the head of the International Monetary Fund).  A Korean-American, he is a global health expert who co-founded Partners in Health, a nonprofit that provides health care for the poor in some of the most wretched places on earth.  Most recently the president of Dartmouth College, Dr. Kim is also a former director of the department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization.

The background he brings to the World Bank will hopefully be good news for the Bank’s renewed commitment to agriculture development as the driving force of poverty reduction in the world’s poorest countries.  Zoellick began to reverse decades of neglect of agriculture development and multiplied the amount of money flowing into projects to help the world’s poor and hungry smallholder farmers become as productive as possible.  That work needs to continue and accelerate.

From his past experience, Dr. Kim is fully aware of the ravages of malnutrition and hunger, how an absence of food and micro-nutrients undermines all the good work being done on the health front.  He knows that you can’t solve the world’s health problems, the world’s development problems, without ending hunger and malnutrition.

He also has been a committed practitioner of intensive consultation with the intended beneficiaries of a development program, to understand the challenges, needs and desires of the world’s poor.  Living with those you seek to help, questioning the inequalities, pushing for innovative solutions, have been hallmarks of Partners in Health.

Too often in the past at the World Bank, economic theory and text-book financial practices trumped practical on-the-ground understanding.  Projects that looked good on office blackboards often backfired in tiny villages.  The classic example was the Bank’s structural adjustment policies of fiscal austerity that ended up punishing smallholder farmers in the developing world, particularly in Africa, and derailing agricultural development for decades.  Structural adjustment, well intentioned on the drawing board, ordered poor country governments to drop their support of agriculture so the private sector could develop and flourish. 

Well, the private sector in most African countries was too weak, too undercapitalized and too disinterested to fill the void and agriculture collapsed.  Seed companies failed, extension services disappeared, the farmers were left alone to bear 100% of the risk of a very risky business.  In the meantime, rich world governments – who control the World Bank -- increased their support of their own farmers, creating a horribly unbalanced global agriculture system.  It was nearly three decades before the World Bank reversed course and once again made agriculture development a top priority.

Dr. Kim will need to keep it there.  His co-founder of Partners in Health, Paul Farmer, said after hearing the news of his friend’s nomination, according to the New York Times: “Jim is all about delivery and about delivering on promises often made but too seldom kept.”

Delivering on promises to the poor. It should no longer be a surprise.  It should be expected.
 


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