| ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Sept 12
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Sept 12 Whether treating
patients with drug-resistant diseases in the slums of Haiti or
trying to reverse the hopelessness of the world's poor, optimism
is essential, insists World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
"For me optimism is a moral choice," Kim told Reuters on his
first trip to Africa, two months into the job as president of
the global development lender.
"If you are a person who is privileged, has resources, and
you go into a situation where you are working with people who
are very poor, if you are cynical and pessimistic and negative,
that is absolutely deadly for poor people," said the
Harvard-trained physician and anthropologist.
It is too early to tell whether a different style will help
Kim strengthen the World Bank's effectiveness at a time the rise
of emerging powers is forcing it to rethink its role, but it
marks a big change.
The hands-on doctor's touch, development experience and
social advocacy seem to have helped Kim build relationships on
his trip to Ivory Coast and South Africa.
Kim's predecessor Robert Zoellick was a respected voice in
international finance and diplomacy who loved history and
scrupulously avoided ceremonial dinners when traveling abroad.
Paul Wolfowitz, a neo-conservative who helped push the United
States into war in Iraq, was saddled from the beginning by his
Like them, Kim intends to focus on organizational reforms
and new ideas to improve an institution often derided for bloat
and promoting the interests of the developed world.
But with years of work in the trenches, fighting
tuberculosis in the prisons of Siberia and the slums of Haiti
and Peru, as well as developing HIV programs in Lesotho and
Rwanda, the 52-year-old brings a new perspective.
The World Bank invested nearly $53 billion in developing
countries last year. But countries such as India, China and
Brazil now have no problem borrowing from capital markets and
value the World Bank more for its expertise in development.
Kim's task is to ensure the bank is focusing on the right
problems for its target audience: how to weigh climate change
concerns over immediate energy demands, how to encourage private
sector investment so that it doesn't benefit only the rich, and
how economic growth can reduce poverty, rising unemployment and
inequality in the 21st Century.
He will also have to improve governance and give emerging
economies greater leadership positions in the Bank - one of his
first moves since he started in July was to name officials from
China and India to two top posts.
Kim's field development expertise made him an unusual
candidate for the job, but had been part of the appeal for U.S.
President Barack Obama.
To his critics, Kim lacks experience in finance and
economics, a criticism he counters by pointing to the $800
million budget he oversaw at Dartmouth College, where he was the
first Asian-American to head an Ivy League school, and by
arguing that development involves more than only finance.
"He ran a large, politicized organization - a university -
with an activist board and very independent power centers,
similar to the World Bank," Daniel Runde of the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington said.
"He has put on his anthropologist cap and understood what
works and doesn't work within the World Bank. He's really still
getting his feet under the desk. The jury is still out."
SOUTH AFRICAN CONNECTION
The trip to Africa was a calculated move: forging good
relations with the continent early on was important to easing
tensions over the fractious process of finding Zoellick's
South Africa, Nigeria and Angola had spearheaded an
aggressive campaign to challenge the United States' historical
grip on the post, exposing increasing dissatisfaction with
Western dominance of the lender.
In South Africa, which led the campaign for Ngozi
Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Finance Minister, to get the job,
Kim appeared to have got what he came for.
After Kim's meetings with top leaders in Pretoria, Finance
Minister Pravin Gordhan said they both shared "activist" roots.
"We are very happy and impressed with the vision that Dr Kim
has for the World Bank, in particular for his role," Gordhan,
the government point person for dealing with international
financial institutions, told a news conference.
Africa's largest economy, which has avoided formal
agreements with the World Bank, except for a $3.75 billion loan
in 2010 to address chronic power shortages, agreed to a new role
for the institution in helping the government implement and
deliver its policies.
Eighteen years after the end of white rule, South Africa
remains one of the world's most unequal societies and is
grappling with high unemployment among the black majority.
In particular, the World Bank will share with South Africa
the experiences of other emerging economies in implementing
development policies that worked.
In Ivory Coast, Kim heard a request from President Alassane
Ouattara for another $1 billion to cope with the aftermath of a
bloody succession after the country's 2010 election.
Kim has said he wants the World Bank to be more flexible in
dealing with countries emerging from conflict and asked that a
pending review of the fund that provides interest-free loans and
grants to the world's poorest nations focus on how to be more
Meeting with students at a training center in Ivory Coast's
main city, Abidjan, Kim recounted his own story as an immigrant
from South Korea when it was still recovering from the 1950-53
conflict that left both North and South in ruins.
His father fled North Korea at the age of 17 and has not
seen his family since. His mother walked 200 miles (320 km) to
escape the fighting. The family left for a better life in the
United States when Kim was five and settled in Iowa, where his
father taught dentistry at the University of Iowa and his mother
earned a doctorate in philosophy.
From those early days, Kim rose to excellence in academics
and sport even as a teenager: he graduated from Muscatine High
School top of the class and class president, and played
quarterback for the football team as well as point guard for the
It is a success story that resonates in Africa, particularly
in a country such as Ivory Coast that is emerging from war.
Everywhere he went, Kim reminded his audiences about South
Korea's rise from conflict and poverty to become an economic
"You have all inspired me," Kim told the students. "I need
you to believe in your country, in your government and get the
skills you need. Let's reject conflict as a path forward."
After posing for a photograph, Kim made a point of circling
the clearly delighted group to exchange high-fives.