April 3, 2012
“In my small way, I’ve tried to make the world’s troubles my troubles. I’ve tackled them directly by setting treatment programs, working to lower the prices of lifesaving drugs, and changing global policy.”
— Dr. Kim in his inaugural speech as Dartmouth College President in 2009
It is not often that a YouTube video of the finals of a student talent show goes viral on the Internet, even if an Ivy League college like Dartmouth hosted the event. Stranger still is the fact that the video shows the 52-year-old president of the college as the showstopper of the evening, rapping in a white spaceman suit and doing a happy jig, with cheering teenagers singing quite appropriately, “I’ve had the time of my life.” But for those who know Dr. Jim Yong Kim, it is not surprising that this very same college president may well become the next president of the World Bank.
Being nominated by the White House to lead the World Bank only seems like the next logical step for this sportive global citizen, widely respected for not just his genius, but also his large heart. When, about ten days ago, President Obama declared that “it is time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency” and named the Asian-American anthropologist and health expert as the U.S. nominee for the post of World Bank chief, even the president’s critics hailed him for his inspired choice. If Dr. Kim is appointed, he will be the first person from a minority community to head the Bank, much to the pride of Korean-Americans. More significantly, it will also be the first time that the World Bank, whose stated mission is to alleviate global poverty, will have a leader who has dedicated most of his professional life to precisely just that.
Not surprising then that the announcement was greeted with excited tweets from Harvard professors, expert economists and globalization gurus, all of whom, much like President Obama, have been impressed by Dr. Kim’s extraordinary work in poor countries — both during his term as the director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) HIV/AIDS Department from 2004 to 2006, and as a member of Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit provider of community-focused healthcare programs, which Kim co-founded and remained a member of between 1987 and 2003. Dr. Kim is most admired for his pioneering work during his PIH days in developing a treatment program for tackling tuberculosis in Peru, the first such large-scale initiative in the country, as well as for his initiative as a WHO official in successfully providing anti-retroviral treatment to more than 3 million HIV/AIDS patients. Achievements such as these have established Kim’s reputation not just as a hands-on leader unafraid to go the extra mile, but also as an innovative physician with a gift for applying theoretical knowledge to implement practical programs for disease and poverty alleviation.
For instance, despite many naysayers, Dr. Kim and his physician-anthropologist friend and PIH partner, Dr. Paul Farmer, have proved that it is indeed possible to provide high-quality healthcare to the poorest in places such as Haiti, Rwanda, and Peru. They achieved this seemingly impossible task by always thinking out of the box, a quality that has consistently distinguished Dr. Kim from his peers. One of their most chronicled innovations is the way in which the duo enlisted those who greatly required healthcare themselves and trained them to be community workers. Making the poor responsible for their own health was an idea that brought them much success – it ensured that the patients took their Tuberculosis or AIDS medicines without fail and there were no lapses in the distribution and supply of the medicines.
“It’s time for a development professional to
lead the world’s largest development agency.”
— President Barack Obama,
while announcing the nomination of Dr. Kim as World Bank chief
It was this let’s-try-something-different attitude that was instrumental in Dr. Kim being appointed first as a special adviser and later as the head of the WHO’s HIV and AIDS department. By the beginning of his tenure, his views on global development issues were honed to a fine degree and he spent his years at WHO focusing on improving prevention and treatment programs along the lines of his previous work in Haiti and Peru. Most notably, Kim headed a successful campaign to lower the price of life-saving drugs, which earned him many accolades and led to his appointment as the chair of the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School. Subsequently, he was appointed the president of Dartmouth College, which made him the first Asian-American to head an Ivy League university. He was named one of the “25 best leaders” in America in 2005 and earned a spot on Time magazine’s list of the “100 most influential people in the World.”
Little wonder then that apart from these and many other international awards and honors, Dr. Kim is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (2003) for his “achievements, ingenuity, and acumen.” Observers believe that President Obama was particularly impressed not just by Dr. Kim’s life work but also his personal history as the son of immigrants from South Korea who settled in small town Iowa in 1959. Curiously, Dr. Kim’s rise coincides remarkably with his parent country’s, which too grew from an impoverished nation five decades ago to the much-celebrated booming economy that it is today.
Kim was five years old when his parents emigrated from Seoul. His father was a dentist who taught at the University of Iowa while his mother pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy. Such formidable early influences undoubtedly shaped the younger Kim’s ideals and sharpened his disarming sense of humility. A topper in high school and class president, Kim went on to study at Brown, and then moved to Harvard for his medical degree and Ph.D. in Anthropology.
Today, Kim, who is married to a pediatrician and has two children, finds himself to be the frontrunner to head the multinational development bank, which itself is going through a process of transformation. If Dr. Kim is selected for the job, which he is most likely to be, as conventionally the White House nominee has always been picked, it may send very clear signals about the changing nature of the World Bank. The essentially lending organization finds itself at a crossroads today and is fervently brainstorming on how to stay relevant in a world with shifting power centers — where huge capital is available from private sources and major donors like China are taking over its core job. Unsurprisingly, the bank is looking to play a more nuanced role in global cooperation and Dr. Kim might prove to be the elusive catalyst. In the words of Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank at its best must serve as a “powerhouse of ideas and a meeting ground for key actors who can together work to solve the daunting problems of poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental degradation.”
It is such oft-expressed views about the future role of the World Bank that have prompted Dr. Kim’s supporters to declare that he is the right man for the right job at the right time. They are confident that he will bring to the table not just his legendary intellect but also the humane qualities for which he is most esteemed.
Reportedly, as president and mentor to the students of Dartmouth College, Dr. Kim loves to quote former Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey who told students at convocation in 1946, “The world’s troubles are your troubles … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”
Indeed, Dr. Kim may be the kind of “better human being” Dickey was referring to — a man who has his heart in the right place and is at ease whether he is shaking a leg in a spaceman suit or extending a hand to help the world’s poorest.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, originally sourced from the National Institute of Health website
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