Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the United States nominee for the World Bank presidency, vows to place Africa among his top priorities if elected to head the world’s leading financial institution.
Making a first stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as part of a global tour, Dr. Kim says Africa has defied the odds to register a faster economic growth in recent years and his presidency at the World Bank would mean a good thing for the continent.
“One of the things I have been watching with great interest is the fact that from the time in the early 2000s, when people had very little hope for the continent as a whole to develop economically, the performance of African countries including Ethiopia has been quite impressive,” said Dr. Kim on Thursday in an exclusive interview with Capital at the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa.
“So bringing my experience in development, bringing my experience in investing in human beings and also bringing my experience in really trying to understand how people in the countries experience development in the direction they want to go; I hope being elected president of the World Bank would mean very good things for Ethiopia and other African countries.”
Ties with Africa
Dr. Kim says his commitment to Africa long predates his nomination to the top job at the World Bank. “My involvement and commitment to providing resources for African people so that they can go down the path to development long predates my nomination by President Obama.”
Dr. Kim earned a medical degree and an anthropology doctorate from Harvard, where he founded a non-profit agency Partners in Health (PHI) with medical school classmate Paul Farmer. PHI renders community-based healthcare services in a number of African countries.
Kim, 52, was director of the department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization and, while there, led a successful initiative to treat three million AIDS patients by 2005.
“I have a long standing commitment to this continent… at a time when people said HIV treatment would be impossible in Africa, I led efforts at the World Health Organization to get three million people treated. I think my experience from that particular effort was when people said things were impossible in Africa, I argued very strongly that things are possible in Africa and that we can establish HIV treatment… and I have been proven correct,” said Dr. Kim during the interview.
The occasion was an important lesson for the world, says the nominee who states the world needs to be ‘wary of saying things cannot happen in Africa.’
“It is through my personal experience of Africa that I would go into the job with the Bank, understanding why Africa has to be among my very top priorities if named president of the World Bank,” Dr. Kim said touting his ties with the continent.
The World Bank since its setup in 1940s has always been led by an American while a European has been at the helm of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Emerging economies however pushed for an open and competitive election for the seats this time.
President Barack Obama’s nominee Dr Kim is being challenged by the Nigerian Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala and Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former Columbian Finance Minister, for the top job.
The US nominee says he welcomes the challenge. “I am very proud to be part of what is the first contested, merit based, open election ever for presidency of the World Bank,” Dr. Kim said during the interview which is the first one since his nomination.
Dr Kim emerged as a surprise pick by President Obama. A physician and anthropologist, the Korean-American nominee has never led a financial institution and this has led to skepticism about his candidacy from experts including those in the US.
One of his challengers, Ocampo on Thursday said he or the Nigerian nominee would make a better pick.
A welcome change at the World Bank
“I would only say that I have tremendous respect for the other candidates. I would simply offer my experience in development. I think those qualify me to be the president of the World Bank,” Dr. Kim told Capital when asked to comment about Ocampo’s remarks.
Okonjo-Iweala is currently finance minister for Nigeria, a post she has held since 2011 after serving as a managing director at the World Bank since late 2007. Ocampo is a professor at Columbia University in New York and previously served as Colombia’s finance minister and also has held senior positions at the United Nations.
“The World Bank is an incredibly important institution; it is not like usual banks. It’s really focused on human development, on spurring economic growth in the poorest countries, on the wellbeing of people throughout the world. So, I feel I bring a very strong background…” Dr. Kim said rebuffing criticism that he lacks expertise.
Kim says his background both as physician and anthropologist could be a welcome change at the World Bank.
“My approach to health care and to my work as a physician is not just as a medical problem. I believe providing people in very poor countries with best of what the world has to offer in terms of health care is exactly what is needed to help them along the path of growth. We know that now from many different studies and many different experiences that investing in human beings is the best way to setup a country on the path towards economic growth,” explained Kim.
“I come with a firm belief that investing in the health of the people is part of what is required to help that country along the path of development.”
As an anthropologist Kim says he spent his life ‘trying to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of people who don’t have education and health care services.’
“My orientation and the spirit that I bring is one that helps me understand what it is like to be in a poor country and understand what is possible if the right kinds of investments are made,” added Kim.
While he says economists’ views are critical, he insisted during the interview that he would bring different skills and perspectives and experience ‘from actual work in development’.
He says he understands that his experience is different from previous World Bank presidents.
“Fundamentally my experience is different I think than previous World Bank presidents, which means that I have a personal sense what it means to be born in a developing country,” Kim said referring to his roots in Korea which he left to the US at the age of five.
“I have watched very carefully as Korea went from being an extremely poor country to one that is now highly industrialized… so I bring my personal experience… and deep conviction that every country in the world should be able to go through the process Korea went through.”
Kim, the president of Dartmouth College, says his managerial experience including in higher education when he worked with scholars including leading economists will come in handy for the top job at the World Bank. He also held a senior post at the United Nations.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced earlier in the week that Kim will also travel to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Brazil and Mexico through April 9.
“First and most importantly I am here to listen. Addis Ababa is becoming an extremely important diplomatic capital for all of Africa. I have come to intensively listen to people in Addis about their sense for the World Bank, to understand what their aspirations are for the Bank. So, it is truly a listening tour,” said Kim during Thursday’s interview about his first stop in Addis Ababa which is the seat of the African Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
“I am also here to introduce myself. I know many people in the global health community but not all areas of the development community know who I am.”
Pledge for reform
During his stay in Addis Ababa, Dr. Kim met the Deputy Chairperson of the AU Commission Erastus Mwencha and UN ECA Executive Secretary Abdoulie Janneh.
He also met Ethiopian senior officials; Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Finance Minister Sufian Ahmed.
At times African leaders including Meles had their foes with the World Bank blamed for trying to impose Western ideals onto the continent.
Dr. Kim says it is premature to make policy pronouncements. However, he has personal ideals he wants to introduce if elected president of the World Bank.
“The principles are clear; one, country ownership is critical. Two, we must be evidence based in the way we set up policies and practices. We must know the way we are doing it is in fact supported by real evidence that says this is a best way to do the particular thing,” explained Dr. Kim.
“I would always be non ideological, I will always be focused on country involvement and will always be focused on evidence,” Dr. Kim promised of his potential presidency at the World Bank.