ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - 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 past.
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.”
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 successor.
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 effective.
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 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 basketball team.
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 powerhouse.
“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.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall