It was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing come to life: the White House plucking out an obscure but highly qualified candidate for a crucial post. Or so it seemed when Barack Obama put forward Jim Yong Kim as America’s nominee for president of the World Bank.
In any other year, the choice of a 52-year-old doctor who established innovative programmes to fight HIV-Aids and tuberculosis would have been applauded as progressive — especially as the bank’s previous 11 presidents have all been white men. The difference is that this year, for the first time, the US nominee was challenged by a strong candidate from the developing world: Nigeria’s finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The prospect of backing Okonjo-Iweala must have tantalised the US. But political considerations forced Obama to nominate a US citizen. Luckily, Kim also has a backstory that makes him stand out.
Kim was born in Seoul in 1959, in a South Korea ravaged by war. His father fled from the North at the age of 17 and never saw his family again. Kim’s mother was forced to escape the advancing North Korean army. “My family’s experience has given me an unshakable optimism about what can happen to the poorest people. You can start from humble beginnings and horrible conflicts and go on to lead a life of dignity,” Kim has said.
When Kim was five, his family emigrated to the US and settled in Iowa, where his father, Nhak Hee, taught dentistry. His mother, Oaksook, received a scholarship to study philosophy. Kim thrived in the midwest, where he was quarterback on his school’s American football team and became interested in politics. At the age of 12, Kim was campaigning in support of George McGovern, the anti-Vietnam war underdog who won the Democratic nomination to run for president in 1972.
McGovern was demolished by Richard Nixon but Kim says he loved his brush with politics, and it left him wanting to go further. His father had other ideas, as Kim recounted in a 2006 interview.
“I remember the first time I came back from college at Brown University, we were driving in the car and my father, just making conversation, said: ‘What do you think you want to study?’ And I said, I think I want to study philosophy.
“So he pulled the car over and said: ‘When you finish your medical residency you can do anything you want.’ I think all immigrant families want you to have a skill that no one can take away from you.” Harvard offered a joint degree in medicine and anthropology, allowing him to satisfy both aims, although he later admitted: “For me, going to medical school was not the one thing in the world I wanted to do.” Kim wrote his PhD thesis on South Korea’s economic development.
But the difficulties of healthcare in the developing world were what first concerned him. At medical school he became friends with another student, Paul Farmer, and in 1987 they and others launched Partners in Health, a charity that fought tuberculosis, first in Haiti and later in other hard-to-reach places such as Siberian prisons.
That experience led to his appointment to the World Health Organisation (WHO), where he became director of the HIV-Aids department. Kim’s time at the WHO included his championing of an initiative that could be a template for his tenure at the World Bank: the ‘3 by 5’ programme, aiming to bring treatment for HIV-Aids to three million people in the developing world by 2005. It was criticised as over-ambitious but Kim piloted the programme deftly enough to bring it to fruition. Although the programme missed its 2005 deadline, the task was completed by 2007.
A return to Harvard followed, until in 2009 Dartmouth College named Kim as its president, making him the first Asian-American to head an Ivy League university. Kim’s brief time at Dartmouth gives few pointers to how he will perform at the World Bank, although his administration has been criticised for failing to solve a long-running problem with student fraternity “hazing” or bullying.
To his critics, Kim’s CV in academia and the non-profit sector fails to compensate for his lack of experience of finance and economics, given the World Bank’s vital role as a financial institution.
But Kim’s biggest task will be reinvigorating an organisation that has spent the past decade in the doldrums, through lacklustre leadership and a diminished role.
Few can doubt Kim’s commitment to social justice. As he once told an interviewer: “I feel like almost every day I’m doing political social justice work. That’s what I do every day with my life.”