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A Champion of the Poor to Lead the World Bank

The following is a guest post submitted by Mark Schuller, Assistant Professor, African American Studies and Anthropology Department of Social Sciences York College, City University of New York. The piece is written by Philippe Bourgois, Richard Perry University Professor of Anthropology and Family & Community Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and Luke Messac, MD/PhD student, University of Pennsylvania

For many European and American citizens the World Bank is a peripheral institution, rarely felt and barely understood. But in impoverished developing countries, the Bank has exerted a tremendous influence over national budgets profoundly altering the survival strategies and basic life chances of the poor majorities of those nations.  As a hegemonic voice in development economics, the World Bank is a felt–and often feared– presence in the lives of the world’s most destitute.  Too often, this well-heeled international lender’s imposition of “structural adjustment reforms” has backfired, harming more than helping the poor.  This month’s election of a new World Bank President is an unparalleled opportunity to refashion the Bank into the effective instrument to eradicate global poverty it was meant to be. No one is better equipped to lead this mammoth undertaking than Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s nominee to lead the World Bank.

Together we have worked with and known Dr. Kim for over three decades:  Bourgois as a fellow medical anthropologist focusing on the afflictions of the destitute, and Messac as a student, mentee and front-line office worker. We have seen him in action and we know how he thinks, works and acts under pressure.  We have followed his pioneering contributions in academic scholarship, institutional leadership, and public policy innovation. As the co-founder of Partners In Health, Dr. Kim transformed the definition of “best medical practices” for the poor.  He showed the world that it is possible to stem the tide of deadly infectious epidemics such as AIDS and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis by effectively delivering complex regimens of medication to the poorest of the poor in the most remote corners of the world.  Most importantly by capacitating and employing health workers in shanty-towns and remote rural hamlets his health model demonstrated that poor people themselves can become the most effective means to deliver world class health technology to the most needy.  By skillfully orchestrating public-private partnerships he enabled 90 percent price reductions to the health ministries of poor countries for life-saving drugs that became a global precedent and are now an ethical industry standard. During his tenure at the World Health Organization, Dr. Kim founded and led the “3 by 5″ initiative, a campaign that helped spur private donors, governments and international organizations increase access to AIDS treatment around the globe. As a pioneer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and most recently as President of Dartmouth College, Dr. Kim proved himself an able administrator capable of galvanizing a generation of young scholars to match idealism with rigor to tackle the most obstinate challenges in poverty eradication.

A few vocal critics of Dr. Kim’s candidacy have argued for the status quo.  They complain that he is unprepared for the post because he is neither an economist nor financier. True enough, Dr. Kim’s academic training was in medicine and anthropology, and he has never worked on Wall Street.  But he is no stranger to powerful institutions.  He has the unique advantage of having worked over the last three decades on the frontlines of the leading global health initiatives both from the institutional inside (World Health Organization, Harvard Medical School, etc) and from the real-world outside in Haitian squatter settlements, Peruvian slums, and Siberian prisons. If elected, Dr. Kim will enter the post of World Bank President with an unequalled understanding of the Bank’s history and the practical grass roots level effects of its policies. In a volume he co-edited in 2000 entitled Dying for growth: global inequality and the health of the poor, he marshals careful documentation and first-hand experience to critique the unintended negative consequences of those World Bank policies that proved most detrimental to the health of the poor. He points, for instance to the deadly consequences of the Bank’s insistence on privatizing public goods like health and education as loan conditions imposed on impoverished debtor governments. In the years that followed, his critique would be echoed by other influential voices, including former World Bank chief economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. More recently the Bank has begun to make recognize its errors and is taking steps away from its formerly counterproductive structural adjustment programs. And while some veterans of the now-discredited late twentieth century policies at the Bank resentfully caricature Dr. Kim’s scholarship as anti-growth and anti-globalization, he has always been a prescient and clarion voice for economic development and poverty eradication efforts driven by evidence, pragmatics and ethics.

The last few weeks since Dr. Kim’s nomination by President Obama have also amplified an overdue discussion of the World Bank’s governance structure. The policies of international financial institutions like the World Bank have long been dictated by its primary shareholders, the governments whose contributions make up the majority of its capital. One of the most visible manifestations of this wealthy-world dominance has been the nationality of these institutions’ leaders. Since the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 an American has led the World Bank while a European has led the International Monetary Fund. Dr. Kim will be the first to transform this colonial-style heritage.  He was born in war-torn South Korea before emigrating to become a United States citizen.  Although nominated by the President of the United States he is a genuine citizen of the world. Never before has a leader with such a proven track record for improving the lives of the world’s very poorest been given the opportunity to take charge of such an influential institution with so much potential to advance the fight against global poverty. Never before has a clear-thinking, practical critic of the World Bank’s past failures been in a position to take this powerful institution’s helm and transform international development for those who need its benefits most.

In short, Dr. Kim’s nomination by the leader of the world’s largest superpower is one of the best opportunities in recent memory to increase access to opportunity and equality among the world’s poorest. We sincerely hope that this year’s election of the next World Bank President is merit-based, as we can think of no better candidate than Dr. Kim to fulfill the Bank’s mission statement: “To fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results.”

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