WASHINGTON – In his first year as president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim has tried to refocus the institution on fighting poverty and climate change — but challenges lie ahead.
The pick of the Korean-American, an academic and doctor by training, marked a radical departure from other recent heads of the Washington-based global body.
Both Robert Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz — fellow Americans recruited when George W. Bush was in the White House — did not have development experience on their resumes.
Less well-known and controversial than those before him, “Doctor Kim” quickly tried to make his mark on the development giant amid competition from new players, such as China, willing to drop large sums, especially in Africa.
“Dr. Kim has been a welcome breath of fresh air compared to some of past World Bank presidents who had no experience in development, but we can’t yet assess if he will change the bank for the better,” said Peter Chowla of the Bretton Woods Project, which keeps a close eye on the institution.
But according to an insider at the bank, people are split on the director’s personality and his actions.
“There are those who admire him and others feel he is too focused on talking,” the source said.
Under his leadership, the World Bank garnered attention when it published a report warning of “cataclysmic” climate change — unfamiliar ground usually occupied by the United Nations.
“I feel that the World Bank has an enormous responsibility to first tell the world about climate change, but then really move our investments in a direction so that we can limit carbon emissions and really slow down the pace of climate change,” Kim said in an interview.
This new approach is not without contradictions.
Intent on helping the 1.2 billion still living without electricity, the bank continues to finance development projects based on fossil fuels, such as a coal plant in Kosovo — much to the chagrin of environmentalists.
“It’s going to be impossible for us to move right now to a completely fossil free world,” Kim acknowledged.
His other big project won’t be easy to tackle either.
In early April, he set the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 by reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day to 3 percent from 21 percent.
“We expected that the Bank set a strategy and refocus its mission on reducing poverty. It’s already a big success,” said Nicolas Mombrial, head of the Washington office of Oxfam International.
It’s an admirable goal, but the challenge is immense. Going forward, the bank has to find ways to increase economic growth to reduce poverty without further damage to the environment.
Kim is in a difficult position, said Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development. “He’s right to sound the alarm on climate but I’m afraid that the poverty goal and climate change could be conflicting.”
The president is confident solutions exist, but he has to convince the bank’s 188 member countries and some 10,000 employees.
It won’t be an easy task.
In a recent internal document obtained by AFP, Kim denounced the “culture of fear” that allegedly curbs initiatives at the heart of the institution and is used to justify inaction.
Certain reactions, published on the bank’s intranet, reflect a climate of mistrust.
“The bank has never been an honest organization, either with itself or with the clients,” said one unnamed bank employee.
“Is the bank willing to take the risk of offending member nations by telling them that they are corrupt and that many nations are themselves the single biggest obstacle to development?” asked another. (J.T.)