On Friday, two weeks after the World Bank Governors approved a major push to end poverty, Jim Yong Kim, M.D. ’91, Ph.D. ’93, president of the World Bank Group, described the plan to a Harvard audience in the Asia Center’s annual Tsai Lecture at the Science Center.
Within 17 years, the bank seeks to reduce the proportion of people living on $1.25 a day or less to 3 percent, the lowest possible figure given natural disasters.
“It’s the first time in history that the world has said we can end poverty as we know it,” said Kim, co-founder of Partners In Health, the Boston-based nonprofit working with the poor on four continents.
Kim is a former president of Dartmouth College and also served as director of the World Health Organization’s HIV-AIDS department, where he led a successful effort to treat 3 million new HIV-AIDS patients in developing countries with antiretroviral drugs.
In the hourlong lecture, co-sponsored by the Korea Institute, he blended wide-ranging policy with encouragement to a supportive audience; several students voiced their aspirations to follow Kim’s path into international development.
Never permit yourself to think that any country in the world or any people is a basket case. If you come in with cynicism it is deadly for the poor people.” — Jim Kim, president of the World Bank Group
A sophomore asked about his proudest moment in his tenure at the bank, which started in July 2012. “Keeping my mouth shut” in the first six months on the job, answered Kim. When he did talk, it was to ask questions — about process at the bank, the programs it supports, and whether ending poverty was a reasonable goal.
A persistent challenge to calculating progress was the fact that the bank always worked with data that was at least two years old. So Kim proposed that the bank measure poverty every year, and stressed a focus on investment in human capital such as education and health care. Changes and tumult around the world demand that focus, he said. Economic growth must be measured in conjunction with gauging the extent to which a society’s bottom 40 percent participate in that growth, he said.
“Growth that’s not inclusive has potential to build instability into your system,” he said.
Also, climate change is a major challenge. If the World Bank supports only clean energy, he said, poor countries with gaping energy needs say they are being punished.
“My job is to walk that balance,” he said — a difficult task.
For instance, he said, economic growth in China has raised 600 million people out of poverty, and the country has led the world in investment in green development. Yet it also has 363 coal plants in the pipeline.
The easier fixes toward ending poverty have already been made, he said.
Kim knows firsthand how perceptions affect development. Born in Korea in 1959, he remembers when experts expressed pessimism about development in his homeland because it was “wracked by the ravages of a strict Confucian culture.” Twenty years later, as the country prospered, the view changed: “The secret to Korea’s development was its Confucian culture.”
The lesson underscored Kim’s encouragement to students to pursue international development with open minds.
“Never permit yourself to think that any country in the world or any people is a basket case,” he said. “If you come in with cynicism it is deadly for the poor people.”
The World Bank is full of optimists, he said, even though they know the challenges are great. But, he said, “Optimism is a moral choice.”