Interview with Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

7 October 2013 – With more than one billion people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, has stated that extreme poverty is “the defining moral issue of our time.” A physician and anthropologist, Dr. Kim has dedicated himself to international development for more than two decades, helping to improve the lives of under-served populations worldwide. He assumed the top post at the World Bank Group [which consists of five organizations] in July 2012 after serving as President of Dartmouth College in the United States. Dr. Kim is also a co-founder of Partners in Health (PIH) and a former director of the HIV/AIDS Department at the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN News Centre caught up with Dr. Kim on the margins of the annual high-level segment of the General Assembly during which, in addition to participating in numerous meetings and events, he joined musicians and movie stars before more than 60,000 spectators at the Global Citizen Festival at New York’s Central Park to promote the Bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity.

UN News Centre: In May, you travelled to Africa’s Great Lakes region with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. What do you think are the most pressing needs in the Democratic Republic of the CongIt was always intended that the UN, a political organization focused on justice and development, would work together with the financial organizations in order to make the world a better place.o (DRC) and the wider region?

Jim Yong Kim: We had the opportunity to travel together with the Secretary-General and the United Nations. The first stop was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are so many needs there. This is a country where 70 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty; where some 7 million children are still out of school. There are needs everywhere; 2.4 million people need food aid. It stretches from just being able to provide food for families to getting children into school to other issues like energy.

While the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the largest potential for hydroelectric power in the world, there are still millions of people who have no access to power. So the list is very long, but our sense in going in was that we needed to make a really bold start.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (front right) and Dr. Kim (front left) speak to journalists in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, after meeting with President Joseph Kabila during a joint visit to support a recent peace deal and promote economic development in the long-troubled region. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

So in addition to the money that the DRC is already getting from the World Bank Group, we were very happy to put on the table an additional $1 billion for the entire region. We hope that that really begins addressing some of the needs.

Specifically, we’re focusing on energy. We’re also focusing on health and education for the population. We’re focusing on cross-border trade… One of the problems is that, while a free and open trading system would help to create jobs and help to spur economic growth, the barriers to trade between the countries in that area are enormous. So we are even going to help in lowering some of those barriers.

Our sense is that by going together, we sent a very strong message – that we’re interested in the peace but we understand that peace, justice and development go hand in hand. And I think we sent that message very strongly.

UN News Centre: During the visit, the Bank announced $1 billion in new funding to help countries in the region. How do you go about determining how much money to give and ensure that it is used wisely so that it benefits the maximum number of people?

Jim Yong Kim: When we were able to put $1 billion on the table, we really worked hard to try to find as many resources as we could put together because we know that that region needs so much. The value of putting the $1 billion for regional initiatives, I think, can’t be overstated. That region really needs to come together. Rather than being involved in conflict and war, the region needs to understand that if they act together, if they move together, there’s so much more that each of them could receive from joint action across the region. So that was one of the messages we were trying to send.

If you look at the things that we actually put the money on the table for – energy, education, health, cross-border trade – those issues are critical for not only those three countries that we visited [DRC, Uganda and Rwanda] but for the entire region. We wanted to be bold and ambitious in our efforts to join with the Secretary-General’s peace initiative and we were very happy that we were able to put together over $1 billion.

UN News Centre: How do you envision the Bank and the UN enhancing their cooperation in the future?

Dr. Kim listens to Solange Elysee, a beneficiary of the PRODEPUR-Habitat project in Delmas, Haiti, in November 2012. Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Jim Yong Kim: You know, from the first time that I heard about the possibility of me becoming President of the World Bank Group, and certainly soon after it was announced that I would be the President, the Secretary-General called me. We have been talking ever since. But this is a person that I’ve known. And if you go back to the time when the Secretary-General was first elected, all of us in the Korean diaspora – the larger Korean community – have been so proud and inspired by him. So for me, it was absolutely natural for me to go to the Secretary-General right away and begin talking about ways we could work together.

One of the things he’s been saying is that this is what the world has always intended for the UN and the World Bank to be – institutions that have different mandates but work hand in glove together. So we have been talking from the very first day of my Presidency on how we can enhance World Bank-UN cooperation. We’ve done it in many ways. But the culmination was this trip this past May. That worked so well, and we learned so much about each other, that we’re going to continue to do it. We’re planning other trips, we’re thinking about other ways we can bring the organizations together. It was always intended that the UN, a political organization focused on justice and development, would work together with the financial organizations in order to make the world a better place.

With the Secretary-General’s leadership – and I can’t overemphasize how important it’s been that the Secretary-General has had a vision not just for the UN but for the whole multilateral system to work together… Behind his bold and inspiring vision for how we should work together, I think we can build a multilateral system that the world has never seen before – one in which rather than competing on the ground, the multilateral institutions know that they have to cooperate. It’s going to be very important in the future for all of us that run these multilateral institutions to send a very strong message to our staff: we expect you to work as closely and cooperatively as you can with all the other organizations because the needs are so great, the disasters in the world have become so severe, the requirement for joint action is so high that every staff member in the World Bank and the UN has to understand that we expect them – and we’re going to hold them to account – to work together.

UN News Centre: The Bank deals with a wide range of issues, from climate financing to gender and sanitation. Is there one issue in particular that you feel strongly about?

Jim Yong Kim: This past April at our spring meeting, the Board [of Governors] endorsed two goals: ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity, in which we will track the income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of every country. It gives us a much clearer focus. This is what everything we do is aimed to accomplish. We are trying to end poverty in the world by 2030 and we’re going to focus especially on the well-being of the bottom 40 per cent of every country.

Dr. Kim greets students at the San Luis Gonzaga School in Lamay, Peru in July 2013. Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

From that, there are a lot of issues that are related. A lot of people don’t understand this, but it will be impossible to end poverty in the world unless we tackle climate change. What we’re seeing is that droughts, for example, in the Midwest of the United States can have an enormous impact on the poorest people living in Africa. As grain prices go up, people are forced into making terrible choices about buying food, sending their kids to school… the effects of these extreme weather events that are linked to climate change are going to be most severe on the poorest and we will not be able to do what we need to do to lift some 1 billion people out of poverty. So everything goes back to our two main goals, but climate change is a major issue for us.

Growing economies are critical; we will never be able to end poverty unless economies are growing. We also need to find ways of growing economies so that the growth creates good jobs, especially for young people, especially for women, especially for the poorest who have been excluded from the economic system. We’re focused on these two goals but those two goals are connected to so many other things that our agenda is broad.

UN News Centre: What will it take to end extreme poverty in our lifetime?

Jim Yong Kim: The best way to lift a person out of extreme poverty is with a good job. So what we know is that economies have to grow. We have to find ways of improving policy, of improving business environments, of attracting investment, so that even in the poorest countries, the private sector can grow, because we know that the private sector creates 90 per cent of jobs in the developing world. A growing economy is critical and we’re doing everything we can to help countries be more competitive and to set their countries on the path of economic growth.

Dr. Kim speaks with Elizabeth Philip of the UN News Centre. Credit: UNTV

But the other thing that we’ve learned is that if you have growth that doesn’t include everyone, you’re building instability into your society. We’ve seen again and again in countries that no one ever would have thought would have explosive social movements, we see them arising. This happened in the Arab Spring. We’ve seen demonstrations recently in Brazil and Turkey. Countries even that are doing well are seeing the rise of social movements. You know, social media has changed the world forever. We’re not going to go backwards. People are not going to accept being poor, accept being excluded anymore. So our message is very simple: we need economic growth but the growth has to focus on jobs for everyone and be inclusive.

Finally, I think what’s really important is that there has to be a movement to end poverty. We see a lot of interesting things happen in the Global Poverty Project, and others are really trying to push everyone in the world to say ‘we need to end extreme poverty’ and ‘we need to end extreme poverty as soon as possible, no later than 2030.’ That social movement, I think, is going to make a huge difference to ensuring that leaders throughout the world understand the importance of ending poverty.

UN News Centre: What unique role does the Bank play amid the multitude of actors involved in the global development effort?

Jim Yong Kim: There are many things about the World Bank that I think put us in a good position to play a strong role. The first is that we have financing. One of the things we’ve learned is that overall official development assistance (ODA) is pretty small compared to the needs of the countries. Official development assistance overall is about $125 billion a year, but the need is in the trillions. Africa alone every year needs more than $100 billion just for infrastructure development. Other countries are also in need of tremendous amounts of funding just to meet the infrastructure needs year to year.

Dr. Kim speaks at a meeting on accelerating efforts towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), organized by the UN Development Programme and the World Bank. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

What we’re trying to do, and I think our unique role, is that we’re able to use 'our ODA', the IDA [International Development Association] - the fund for the poorest - and match it with the work that we do in the private sector. So what we do is provide financing but what we think will be an even bigger impact is we use our financing to leverage other kinds of financing, especially private sector financing. Countries all over the world, even the poorest countries, are saying ‘we want assistance but what we really want is for people to have enough confidence to invest in our economies so that we can create the kinds of jobs that people want’.

In addition, we have global knowledge that’s really unparalleled. We’ve been working on so many projects in so many countries for so long that we have a lot of data evidence and experiential knowledge that can help countries achieve what they want to achieve for their populations. And so we’ve been focusing a lot on helping countries actually deliver on their promises to the poor. We call it a ‘science of delivery’ but really what it’s focused on is capturing all the best experiences from around the world and then putting that information in a form countries can use and try in their own local settings to improve their own delivery.

So we provide finance but we want that finance to leverage others. We provide knowledge that’s global and that we hope is also practical and applicable in the settings. We’re also very good at collecting data. So we actually know whether economies are growing or not growing, whether people are being included or not included, and that combination of factors, I think, does give us an important role in global development.

Dr. Kim speaks to the crowd at the Global Citizen Concert in Central Park, New York. Photo: Jim Rosenberg/World Bank

UN News Centre: You’ve been in your post for just over a year now. What do you think are the main challenges the Bank faces? Are there ways it could improve how it works?

Jim Yong Kim: I think one of the main challenges that the World Bank faces is creating an organizational structure that doesn’t get in the way of its staff. We have fantastic staff. People told me as I was coming into the organization that the greatest asset of the World Bank Group is its staff, and I think there’s no question that that’s the case. Right now, we have a great staff but an organizational structure that hasn’t changed for 17 years. The last time there’s been a major rethink of the organization was in 1997. So now is the time to really rethink it and build a structure that is better equipped to deal with the problems of today. So we’re going through a major re-organization process. We’ve already been doing it now for almost a year. We’re getting toward the end of the major decisions, we’re in the implementation phase and we think we’re going to get it done.

We’re doing this because we want to unlock the full potential of our staff. Right now some staff are only working in one region or one country and are not able to share their experience and knowledge with the entire group. We’re going to make sure that that doesn’t happen anymore. There are staff that work in the private sector who don’t know what staff who are working in the public sector or on the same problems are doing. We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. If we can unlock the full potential of the World Bank Group staff, I think we can have an even more transformational impact in country after country in the world.

UN News Centre: Do you think that your background as a physician and also in anthropology has helped you in your current position?

Jim Yong Kim: What I learned from my work as a physician is that even with the most complicated patients, the most complicated problems, you’ve got to look hard to find every piece of data and evidence that you can to improve your decision-making. Medicine has taught me to be very much evidence-based and data-driven in making decisions.

In terms of my anthropology background, of course, anthropologists think about culture and think about the way people talk to each other and think about language, think about symbols and social organization. So the anthropology has been extremely helpful, and in fact over the last year, I’ve been engaged in deep ethnography around a most interesting tribe of people – the World Bank Group staff. What I’ve learned is that it’s an extremely interesting culture. And cultures build up over time and people sometimes think that the culture is what it is because it couldn’t possibly be any other way. We’re introducing changes and are trying to move the culture in directions that I know will be better for the organization. That’s always painful, and so we have to think hard about making sure that people can make it through this transition.

Dr. Kim joins musicians Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder to rock anti-poverty concert in New York’s Central Park. Credit: World Bank

But there’s no question, and this came from a staff survey – we surveyed everyone in the World Bank organization – and the message from them was clear: we need these changes, we need these changes now. And the number one issue about change that they identified was to change the culture. Now, most anthropologists don’t go about trying to change culture, they go about studying it and trying to record it. Well in this case, I do think we have to change the culture. So that’s been very helpful.

The thing that’s been most helpful to me though is the fact that I’ve been doing development work for 20-25 years. It’s hard for me to imagine walking into the World Bank Group having had no experience in development and trying to figure out what’s going on because there’s so much complexity. Doing things in a developed country and trying to do those same things in a developing country are so different, and even among developing countries there are so many differences that if you’ve never done that before, it’s difficult to understand really what we’re doing at the World Bank.

So the fact that I had worked in more than a dozen countries and have been working for 25 years trying to implement health, education and social protection programmes, I think really helped me inside the World Bank Group and helped me to feel a sense of closeness to our frontline staff. But it’s a complicated organization… I’m still learning… and the ethnography will continue until I’m done with my work at the World Bank Group. And I hope we can bring about the kind of cultural changes that everybody in the institution wants so we can be at our best every day in every country in the world.