It's fair to say that surprise was the initial Beltway reaction to President Obama's announcement Friday that he'd picked Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim as the U.S. nominee to lead the World Bank. Kim, a Harvard-trained medical doctor, anthropologist and former World Health Organization official, is not a familiar creature around Washington circles. White House whispers had previously floated more well-known political figures for the position being vacated in June by Robert Zoellick—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former White House economic adviser Larry Summers, Sen. John Kerry and U.N. envoy Susan Rice, to name a few.
But it didn't take long for the rave reviews from the global health and development community to come in. Kim was an inspired choice, they said, to head the 187-nation bank, whose mission is to fight poverty and promote development.
"This [the choice] is much more significant than 'he is not a Washington insider,'" Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton administration official who is now executive director of the progressive National Security Network, told Yahoo News. Hurlburt met Kim about ten years ago when she worked with Bono on the One campaign anti-poverty initiative. "This is someone who has actually done development. Have we ever had a World Bank president whose specialty is development? He is a practitioner."
Even former President Bill Clinton weighed in. "Jim Kim is an inspired and outstanding choice to lead the World Bank," he said in a statement, that noted Kim's "years of commitment and leadership to development and particularly health care and AIDS treatment across the world."
Kim, who moved to the United States from South Korea when he was five years old, went on to earn degrees from Brown and Harvard Medical School, and a Harvard doctorate in anthropology, with a Ph.D. thesis focused on pharmaceutical companies. He was also a MacArthur "genius" grantee. In the 1980s, he was among a small group of doctors and anthropologists working in central Haiti who started a community-based global health organization called Partners in Health. He led Partners in Health's work in Peru during an epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the mid-1990s, where he helped negotiate lower prices from pharmaceutical companies to get poor people access to life-saving medications. He and Partners were later invited to treat Russian prisoners in Tomsk who had become infected with tuberculosis. More recently, Kim has led the World Health Organization's department of anti-HIV/AIDS initiatives.
"Jim was leading our effort in Peru, when we happened across an epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis," Ophelia Dahl, executive director and fellow co-founder of Partners in Health, told Yahoo News on Friday. "And it was a remarkable thing." Kim's work "looked at why people were dying when drugs were available, and he challenged the policy, to make sure that people had access to treatments that were shown to work."
Kim's work helped challenge and transform thinking in the global health community "to see that these diseases are extremely treatable by expanding access to effective treatments to the poor," Dahl said.
Kim's strength is not just informed by his work with communities in the developing world, Hurlburt noted, but also in being effective while leading some highly politicized and bureaucratic institutions, like Dartmouth College and the World Health Organization. "The stuff you have to deal with running an Ivy League university is in some ways a lot more excellent preparation than anyone would like to admit for running an international institution," she said, adding that Kim is also a "seriously nice man."
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