In first public address, new World Bank President emphasizes knowledge and results

by Tom Pesek, Partnership Officer, IFAD’s North American Liaison Office

I must admit that I was surprised when Jim Yong Kim was selected to become President of the World Bank earlier this year. It’s not that he isn’t qualified. After all, he is a trained physician and anthropologist who has spent over two decades in international development, co-founding Partners In Health and serving as Director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS Department. It’s more that he was far from an obvious choice and his name certainly wasn’t among those rumored to be under consideration. Yet the selection makes perfect sense upon closer inspection, especially if one views the Bank as a knowledge institution. Mr. Kim is the very first President of the World Bank to have previously run a knowledge institution. And as he pointed out today at his first public address since assuming the post, the World Bank has far more PhDs than Dartmouth College, the Ivy League institution he led until recently.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution before an invitation-only audience, Mr. Kim shared some initial insights into his priorities as President of the World Bank. And although he revealed little about what those might be, it was clear that he will promote a robust focus on knowledge management and learning, and on delivering evidence-based results on the ground.

Mr. Kim also signaled that he will continue the Bank’s policy of open access to data, lauding the Open Data Initiative launched in 2010 by his predecessor, Robert Zoellick. Citing his experience in global health, he stressed the importance of making available data sets developed and acquired by Bank staff and from Bank projects. Increasing the availability of official documents, particularly on active projects and actions by the Boards of Governors and Executive Directors, would promote greater accountability, transparency, and knowledge sharing.

Mr. Kim stated that with 1.3 billion still living on less than US$1.25 per day, aggressively addressing global poverty is both a moral and economic imperative.  On numerous occasions, he underscored the importance of building safety nets to protect communities against shocks and to strengthen their resiliency. And while he asserted that the World Bank must evolve to succeed, he repeatedly emphasized that he was only 17 days into his new position and that he has not yet set any definite institutional or sectoral priorities. Although he is currently just “taking the temperature of the organization and visiting the departments,” he did outline four key challenges that will help focus the institution’s work under his leadership:

protecting recent development gains against global economic unrest;
broadening development to those left behind, particularly fragile states;
promoting sustainable economic growth; and
demanding that economic growth is inclusive.

After concluding his formal remarks, Mr. Kim was joined by Kemal Derviş, Vice President and Director of the Global Economy and Development at Brookings, for a Davos-style conversation about the World Bank’s role in international development at a time when the global economy remains highly vulnerable. Mr. Kim stated that while the challenges above are formidable, the recent IDA replenishment and capital increases provide adequate resources for the Bank to increase its lending and investments.

Mr. Kim cautioned that the current euro-zone debt crisis could have far-reaching implications from which no country or region is immune. “To put it starkly, what is happening in Europe today affects the fisherman in Senegal and the software programmer in India. Therefore, it is urgent that European countries take all necessary measures to restore stability." He noted that the crisis could potentially reduce growth in most regions of the world by as much as 1.5 percent even if it is contained. In response, he pledged to increase the Bank’s lending, if necessary, to avoid a reversal of the hard-won achievements of the past decade in the fight against global poverty.

He stated that reforms are needed to sustain high rates of growth even in rapidly expanding economies. Middle-income countries must modernize their economic structures and generate more jobs to meet the growing expectations of their people. "Even as an unprecedented number of people in the developing world are ascending into the middle class, segments of the poorest populations are being left behind, and other segments of the middle class are at risk of falling back into poverty," he said. Mr. Kim urged emerging economies to take on a greater role in financing development as they account for a growing share of global growth. He also pledged to improve the Bank’s engagement in fragile states so that it is “far more responsive than it is today, and capable of delivering the right financial and technical support at the right time.”

As Mr. Kim identifies the Bank’s priorities going forward, one can only hope that he maintains the strong focus on agriculture and rural development championed by his predecessor, Robert Zoellick. It would be unfortunate if the Bank’s focus were to shift away from the sector after it played such a critical leadership role throughout the global food price crisis.  But then again, global crises have a way of stubbornly inserting themselves onto the agendas of global leaders and institutions, regardless of their pre-conceived priorities. This was certainly Mr. Zoellick’s experience as he assumed the presidency in 2007 amid soaring food insecurity and highly volatile global food prices. If recent trends are any indication, agriculture and food security issues are unlikely to disappear from the Bank’s agenda. Food security has become a key feature of G8 and G20 meetings. What’s more, food insecurity remains high in the Sahel and current drought conditions in the US have not been seen since 1956, threatening to significantly increase crop prices and drive up the cost of food.