Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / UN

When it became clear, in 2005, that the World Health Organization would not reach an ambitious goal to expand global access to antiretroviral drugs, the agency’s chief HIV and AIDS strategist did something quite unexpected.

“All we can do is apologize,” Jim Yong Kim told BBC about WHO’s plan to expand access to the HIV treatments to 3 million people between 2003 and 2005. “I think we have to just admit we’ve not done enough and we started way too late.”

Humble, direct, driven by the facts and a dedication to serve — it was classic Kim. Other leaders may have tried to downplay or even kill the news. Not the Harvard-trained doctor and anthropologist who on Friday, March 23, was named U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Robert Zoellick as World Bank president.

To Kim, the apology served as an important lesson in leadership. Knowing how to take the blame and understanding what’s at stake is important, he told students at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League school in New Hampshire he now leads, in 2009.

Humility, hard work and a concern for others were ingrained in Kim from an early age. Born 1959 in South Korea to a dentist and a theology professor, Kim was only five when his family moved to the small town of Muscatine, Iowa. It’s an unlikely destination for Asian immigrants seeking a more productive life in the United States, as Kim noted during a 2009 gala hosted by the Korean American Community Foundation.

Kim grew up to be an achiever. His high school grades put him at the top of his class; he excelled in American football (as quarterback) and basketball (as point guard). He later earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University as well as a medical degree and a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard.

But what truly shaped Kim’s outlook on global development were his travels — to Peruvian townships, the countryside of Haiti, post-genocide Rwanda and freezing Siberia, for instance.

“In my small way, I’ve tried to make the world’s troubles my troubles,” Kim said during his inaugural speech as Dartmouth College president in March 2009. “I’ve tackled them directly by setting treatment programs, working to lower the prices of lifesaving drugs and changing global policy.”

Kim is a champion of social and health justice. And he strongly believes in pursuing goals that others may deem impossible to reach.

In Haiti, he helped pioneer efforts to provide lifesaving care to AIDS patients, alongside Thomas White, Todd McCormac, Ophelia Dahl and Paul Famer. The group went on to establish Partners in Health in 1987. Kim served as executive director and remains on the board of the Boston-based nonprofit, which now works in 12 countries.

“They said it was impossible. Forget it. Completely impractical,” Kim said in 2009 about providing treatment to HIV patients. “And we started doing it in Haiti. And now we have close to four million people in the poorest countries receiving treatment for HIV.”

Kim brought this way of thinking with him to WHO in 2003, first in his position as special adviser to then-Director-General Lee Jong-wook and later, as head of the U.N. specialized agency’s HIV and AIDS department. He focused on efforts to scale up prevention, treatment and care programs in developing countries.

Kim has chaired the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School, and he is the first Asian-American president of Dartmouth. He was named one of the “25 Best Leaders” in America by U.S. News & World Report in 2005 and one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time in 2006.

And on Friday, Obama nominated the global health expert as head of the World Bank. The announcement came as somewhat of a surprise, since Kim’s name had not been among the rumored frontrunners. The post has traditionally gone to a banker, politician or diplomat.

What changes would Kim bring to the Washington-based lender?

At this point, that’s all speculation, of course. But a greater focus on global health would seem likely. When he took over the presidency of Dartmouth, Kim said it wouldn’t “make much sense” for him to lead an institution that didn’t have a strong background in health issues.

Kim has advocated a holistic, rights-based and community-driven approach to solving health challenges. He’s a firm believer in collaborations — between donors and recipients, local and national authorities, the public and private sectors.

The international community should stop thinking of global health in isolation, he has argued while emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary work to transform health systems and economies.

Kim has focused much attention on resolving inefficiencies in the delivery of health care. While it’s important to develop new tools, drugs and treatments, Kim has stressed the human and system challenges in delivering quality care.

“The real rocket science in health care is how you organize human beings to actually deliver what we already have, and deliver that which would be new, which would come down the path inevitably,” he told Forbes magazine last November upon the launch of the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science.

Kim is a strong advocate of country ownership, data transparency and accountability, and he has published extensively on multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, community-based approaches to HIV treatment and global health service delivery reform.

If elected, Kim would take over a bank whose role in international cooperation is shifting. Under Zoellick’s tenure, the World Bank has seen a much-needed capital increase, developing countries gained unprecedented voting power, and the bank’s treasure trove of data has been opened to the public. The next World Bank president would have to hit the ground running, and answer burning questions, for instance, about the multilateral’s role in promoting good governance, clean energy usage and other causes.

Perhaps Obama had it right when he said, “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.” Kim might just be the type of leader the World Bank needs right now.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.