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New World Bank Chief Very Different From His Predecessors

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) said that he believed "nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission" of leading the World Bank than Jim Yong Kim.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) said that he believed "nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission" of leading the World Bank than Jim Yong Kim.

The new head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, breaks the mold for the institution's presidents in multiple ways.

Until now, all 10 previous heads of the bank -- whose goal is to help the development of poor countries -- have been bankers or Washington officials.

But Jim Kim, as he is known, is neither. He is a physician with a background in development work in some of the globe's poorest regions. And he will be the first Asian-born American to lead the bank.

The 52-year-old Kim was born in South Korea but came to the United States with his family at age 5. His father, a dentist and professor, and his mother, who took a Ph.D. in philosophy, embodied the "American Dream" of succeeding by hard work and merit. So did their son, only with a twist.

Kim graduated from Harvard Medical School as a physician. But instead of going into a lucrative practice as a doctor, he stayed at school to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology. All his interests focused upon the developing world.

Kim's first success came when he co-founded an organization called Partners in Health while still in medical school. Working for the group in Lima, Peru, in the mid-1990s, he helped develop a program for combating the resurgence of a strain of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

To make treating such virulent tuberculosis affordable to the poor, Kim and his colleagues developed ways patients could be treated at home instead of in a hospital and negotiated with pharmaceutical companies to make cheaper, more effective drugs.

The success of the effort prompted the World Health Organization and other groups later to put similar treatments in place in 40 countries.

Lessons Of Peru

Kim says that it was in Peru that he learned the lessons of his life. "It was here that I saw how communities struggle to prosper because of a lack of infrastructure and basic services," he said recently. "And it was here that I learned that we can triumph over adversity by empowering the poor and focusing on results."

Jim Yong Kim

Jim Yong Kim

After Peru, Kim went on to lead a World Health Organization program to treat 3 million new HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries with antiretroviral drugs. He then became president of one of the United States' most prestigious universities, Dartmouth.

His success story made U.S. President Barack Obama an enthusiastic supporter of Kim to replace current World Bank President Robert Zoellick, whose term ends on June 30.

"I believe that nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission than Dr. Jim Kim. It's time for a development professional to lead the world's largest development agency," Obama said on March 23.

Western Dominance Disputed

Still, the choice of Kim to lead the World Bank has not been without controversy.

That is because since the World Bank was founded in 1945, it has been accepted practice to let Washington nominate its head.

But this year several other countries challenged the tradition by nominating their own candidates. Two candidates, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, felt they were better qualified for the job than Kim and publicly said so.

Okonjo-Iweala, who also served as a managing director of the World Bank under Zoellick, was particularly critical. She told AFP in a recent interview that the voting process for a new bank president was unfair because it was dominated by Western powers and "this thing is not really being decided on merit."

The bitter feelings over Washington's continuing influence over who becomes the World Bank's director could complicate Kim's first months on the job.

His first order of business will now have to be consolidating his authority over his rival's supporters at the bank. Only then, will he be able to implement his own vision for how the powerful international lending institution can better help the world's poor.

With reporting by Reuters, "The New York Times," and "The Guardian"

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