Life in the hot seat at the World Bank: interview with Dr Jim Yong Kim

20 Jan 15
Building shared prosperity in an unequal world is hardly the easiest of tasks. But it’s a key aim of World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim. He tells us about his progress so far

By the EY editorial team | 20 January 2014

Building shared prosperity in an unequal world is hardly the easiest of tasks. But it’s a key aim of World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim. He tells us about his progress so far.

The World Bank Group (WBG) headquarters, located in the heart of Washington, DC and a few blocks away from the White House, is a world away from the frontlines of development. But don’t let its geographic location fool you. Here is an institution packed with thousands of development professionals fired up by the shared aims of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity. They are led by Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the 12th president of the WBG, who left a role in academia to join the Bank in June 2012. Since taking up the role he has not only refocused the organization — multilateral, complex and made up of 188 member countries — around these two shared aims, but he has also embarked on a hugely ambitious program of internal reform, one that continues to make waves both inside and outside the organization.

Medical matters

However, the organizational changes, important though they are, have not been his dominant priority in recent weeks. Like so many development professionals, Ebola — the insidious disease that has been ricocheting across communities in West Africa leaving thousands dead and many more in need of urgent medical assistance — has been front of mind.

“It’s hard to imagine, but as we go through the Ebola crisis today, but there was a time back in the late 1990s, when there was tremendous skepticism about being able to treat HIV-Aids,” he recalls. Dr. Kim, a trained medical doctor, is speaking from past experience. A former director of the HIV/AIDS Department at the World Health Organization, he is also co-founder of Partners in Health, a pioneering organization dedicated to treating poor people in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and other developing countries.

“One of the things we did when I was working in Haiti, was that we begin to insist that treatments for HIV and other complicated diseases should be made available to everyone,” he continues. “We’re doing the same thing today with Ebola. We’re saying that complex treatment has to be made available to people with Ebola too. With HIV, there was an assumption that somehow drugs that worked in rich countries wouldn’t work in poor countries.”

Dr. Kim has been vocal about the need to hasten the pace of the response, particularly in countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have struggled to respond to the outbreak.

Sierra Leone. “We are not the first responders to an outbreak but the reason we have gone in so aggressively is that nothing was happening and we could see there could be a huge potential hit to the economy of West Africa,” he explains.

The WBG quickly deployed a US$400m overall assistance package (one of the largest sums from any donor) that hopes to reduce the economic impact of the disease to those three countries (which could be as high as US$32.6b over the next two years according to WBG forecasts) and Dr. Kim is also backing the creation of a new pandemic funding measure that could deploy funding even faster to countries affected by future outbreaks.

“We think we can put together a very innovative funding instrument — large sums of money that can be spent immediately when there is a pandemic because this is one of the problems; there was no source of funding that could be immediately dispersed,” he says. “Ebola showed us that the world is not prepared but if there is another pandemic, for influenza for example, then the economic consequences would be devastating. What we need to do is have an immediate dispersing mechanism that forces the world to have a plan that could potentially buffer the impact of these shocks. If we are going to have any chance to end poverty by 2030, we are going to have to put these instruments in place.”

Eyes on the prize

It’s no coincidence that Dr. Kim pivoted back toward the goal of ending poverty by 2030 in his comments. The ambition cuts through the WBG’s operations and vision, underpinning its eclectic set of activities around the world. Established in 1944, the WBG provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world by providing low-interest loans, interest-free credits, and grants to developing countries, supporting investments in sectors such as education and agriculture and offering policy advice, research and analysis. “Our commitment to shared prosperity is very deep and goes back to that mindset to when people said it wasn’t possible that the poor can participate in society and have jobs, health and education, and we want to put that to rest forever,” he says.

With this in mind, he says that having the target to end poverty (measured as living on less than US$1.25 a day) is itself a key too to driving progress. “The important point is that it is a target,”

he says. “You have to have a clear target with a clear end date. Ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity are not new ideas but the fact that we’ve committed to measuring it, and to looking at all of our activities in this light, has been really helpful.” Partly this is because the low-hanging fruit are no more, he continues. “It is going to get harder . But in order to spur growth we know that by far the work that is still to be done in order to lift people out of poverty is through growth that creates jobs. We know we need to do that.”

A “bumpy road” to progress

The aim of the reform program is to position the WBG so that it is better placed to reach its ambitious anti-poverty goals; In July, the WBG began to implement a new structure, the center piece of which are 14 centralized and thematic global practices covering areas such as water, education and health. Dr. Kim firmly believes that the changes will make the bank more agile, less bureaucratic and better able to direct its resources toward those most in need around the world. But implementing the reforms has not been straightforward, with many staff openly critical of the change program during the WBG’s annual meetings earlier this year. Dr. Kim readily accepts that it has been a difficult period.

“It is bumpy and the reason it is bumpy is because we are going through a huge change,” he says. “This is a change the likes of which the Bank hasn’t seen for almost 20 years. The change program is based on an exhaustive study we did, with 12,000 people answering our survey and we’ve done our best to follow very carefully what people said. But when you get into something at a multi-lateral organization like ours then it is very bumpy. We knew this was going to be a tough road but the good news is we’re almost there and are moving in a very good direction. I have huge empathy with World Bank staff who have to go through all these changes but we’re almost there.”

Dr. Kim is clearly unwavering in his belief that the reforms will enable the Bank to remain the world’s leading organization for financing development programs. “I want to finish these changes as quickly as we can and that’s what we’re going to do,” he says. There is little doubt that Dr. Kim has had a huge impact already, and with almost three years of his term still to go, it will be fascinating to see what’s happens next. Watch this space.

This feature was first published in the December issue of EY's Dynamics magazine

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