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Surprise! Putting a doctor activist in charge of World Bank controversial

Dr. Jim Kim
Dr. Jim Kim

When President Barack Obama last week announced that he was nominating Dr. Jim Kim, an outspoken poverty advocate and physician, to take the helm of the World Bank, it was a surprise to almost everyone.

Kim is currently president at Dartmouth College but is best known as the physician co-founder, with Paul Farmer, of the renowned anti-poverty and health improvement organization Partners in Health. He was a surprise nomination because he isn’t a banker, a financial expert or a politician at sunset looking for new pastures to practice the art of compromise.

And like Paul Farmer, he is passionate, fearless and fairly uncompromising in the fight to defeat global poverty, and the diseases of poverty. This is why so many in the global health and development community are excited about his nomination to head up the World Bank — and also why Kim may become the first U.S. nominee to face a serious challenge for the post.

I happen to know of at least one job search Kim reportedly got dropped from due to his tendency to say what he thinks.

When the University of Washington was creating its new global health department years ago, Kim was a front-runner for the job as dean. He came and spoke at the UW about his strategy for global health, pointedly contending that we don’t need new gizmos or scientific research to help the poor so much as we need to invest in basic services — public health, food, water.

This was not well-received by the fellow then running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s global health program, Richard Klausner, a renowned scientist and former director of the National Cancer Institute.

Back then, I was told by “sources” (very good ones, though they prefer to remain unnamed) that Klausner made it clear to the UW that if Kim got the job, the university should expect less favor (i.e., funding) from the mega philanthropy going forward. Klausner eventually left the Gates program, under a bit of a cloud, but Kim got knocked out of the running.

Now, President Barack Obama has nominated Kim to become head of the World Bank. This is being received as great news for the global health community and, at least in some quarters, bad news for the mainstream development community. The general complaint among the critics appears to be that Kim is not really cut out for a job that is largely about economics and finances.

Kim’s supporters, however, argue that it’s high time the World Bank shifted from its focus on ‘economic development’ — which often accrues to the powerful at the expense of the poor — to focusing on addressing the needs of poor people in poor countries.

In any case, what Kim’s nomination almost certainly means is that, unlike past American appointments to the World Bank that were automatically approved as a matter of tradition, Obama’s pick may have a real contest this time. Some notable stories:

Guardian: Good for global health if Jim Kim becomes World Bank chief

Foreign Policy Kim’s nomination is wrong for World Bank, sign of Obama’s timidity

Foreign Policy Why Kim, if not best pick, may be a smart pick

Center Global Dev Why a Nigerian economist should become WB chief

Washington Post Why Kim is the right man right now

Laurie Garrett Why Kim’s nomination won’t be a shoe-in

Owen Barder Time to change the WB selection process 


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.