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Illustration of Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. (WWW.JENKINSDRAWS.COM)
Illustration of Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. (WWW.JENKINSDRAWS.COM)

THE LUNCH

World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim: A doctor’s bold prescription to cure poverty Add to ...

Jim Yong Kim, the Harvard-trained physician who completed his first year as World Bank president earlier this month, must be the only person in history who has gone on television to apologize for saving lives.

In 2003, when Dr. Kim was the World Health Organization’s point man on HIV-AIDS, he rallied the world’s governments to endorse an audacious plan to treat three million victims of the disease with antiretroviral therapy by 2005. (Former prime minister Paul Martin's government donated $100-million in May, 2004, to keep the effort from failing.)

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There was internal resistance to Dr. Kim’s “3 by 5” initiative. The careerists at the WHO said failure was certain. To clinch the necessary support, Dr. Kim said he would take personal responsibility if the initiative flopped.

By June, 2005, one million people in developing countries were receiving treatment. That was a 230-per-cent increase from 2003, but the target of three million clearly was out of reach. Keeping his pledge, Dr. Kim went on the British Broadcasting Corp. to apologize for the miss.

“It was a totally impossible goal in retrospect,” Dr. Kim acknowledges now, although with a gigantic smile on his face. “But my goodness, it sped up our process!”

Our conversation has turned into a brief oral history of “3 by 5” because Dr. Kim has a new mission. In April, he convinced Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the 24 other economic and development ministers who set the World Bank’s agenda to endorse a pledge to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030.

I had pointed out that targets can come back to haunt. In concrete terms, Dr. Kim’s pledge amounts to lifting the incomes of more than one billion people above $1.25 (U.S.) a day in 17 years. Nothing like that has ever been achieved. Why risk the embarrassment of failure?

Dr. Kim steamrolls over my question, probably in the same way he flattened objections from his WHO bureaucrats a decade ago.

Dr. Kim, who also has a PhD in anthropology, says one of his great interests is organizational theory. The “3 by 5” gambit wasn’t about seeking glory for the WHO.

Rather, his intent simply was to get more out of the organization’s resources. When Dr. Kim launched his initiative, 300,000 people in the poorest countries were receiving treatment for AIDS victims. Today, the number is more than eight million.

“He has an endlessly creative mind,” said Stephen Lewis, who was the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa at the same time Dr. Kim was at the WHO, an agency of the United Nations.

“He has a very strong sense of focus on how to get things done,” Mr. Lewis added in a telephone interview from Toronto.

“What he has set out for himself, he will move heaven and earth to achieve.”

There are plenty of restaurants near the World Bank headquarters in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighbourhood that cater to power brokers.

Yet Dr. Kim has denied me the opportunity to inflate my expense account. Instead, we are sitting around a small work table eating roasted vegetables and salad from the World Bank’s cafeteria.

This being a lunch profile, he says he thought it would be appropriate that our meeting reflect his usual eating habits.

He explains that he knocked down some walls outside his office to facilitate conversation between his senior advisers, who carry on with their work even as their boss eats with a stranger.

As for the menu, Dr. Kim says he is fairly disciplined about eating a healthy diet. Breakfast almost always is fruit and lunch almost always is vegetables. “I am a physician,” he says. And dinner? “I cheat.”

By convention, the World Bank president is an American. When the institution was established at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. stood alone as the world’s global power, and the White House insisted on naming the World Bank’s leader. Nothing has changed in the decades since.

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