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Jim Yong Kim ’82: ‘What’s the nature of our responsibility?’

World Bank president reflects on his undergrad life, leadership training, development priorities

There was a time when Jim Yong Kim ’82, president of the World Bank since 2012, in his first year at Brown, was questioning the nature of his responsibility to the world.

Passionate political activism didn’t exist in the small Iowa town where Kim grew up. But at Brown, “I found my people,” Kim said. “People who were nerdy but really cared about the world.”

Born in Seoul, Kim has taken on many roles throughout his life. After earning an M.D. and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard, he co-founded Partners in Health, a nonprofit that uses community-based primary care to fight disease in developing countries.

Kim and co-founder Paul Farmer gave the organization a “Robin Hood attitude,” often obtaining drugs for free with their charm and determination, Tracy Kidder wrote in his book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”

Partners in Health serves poor communities on four continents, according to the World Bank website. The organization’s success prompted the World Health Organization to embrace some of the nonprofit’s models, Kidder wrote.

Kim became director of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS department, where he launched an initiative that treated 3 million HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries with antiretroviral drugs over four years, according to the World Bank’s website.

In 2009, Kim became the first Asian-American president of an Ivy League institution when he took the helm at Dartmouth.

His hip-hop performance with the Dartmouth Gospel Choir — a remix of the Black Eyed Peas song “Dirty Bit” — may be more well-known online than his speeches, but Kim said, “I think after that one experience, it’s now written into my contract that I do not have to sing and dance anymore.”

Before ringing in Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration with his opening lecture tonight, Kim spoke with The Herald about identity, leadership and the importance of inclusive growth in the global economy.


How did your time at Brown impact your decision to pursue public health and public service?

I came to Brown with an interest in public service, there’s no question. I was very involved in campus political issues around financial aid. Brown still had need-dependent admission back then.

I grew up in Iowa, in the late ’60s and ’70s. I went for a year and a half at the University of Iowa. I expected it would be an experience where I wouldn’t only be a student but I would get a sense for what engaged young people cared about. It was more concerned with basketball, drinking and fraternities.

I transferred to Brown. My first semester, I still remember it. Through the Third World Center I met African-American students who had grown up in Bed-Stuy, in the toughest neighborhoods, and taught me what it was like to live on food stamps in a single-parent home. To be in a room with the Third World Center — it used to be called Rites and Reason Theater. Just sitting in that basement with these absolutely brilliant young people, African-American, Latino, Asian-American, talking about what’s happening in the world.

I mean, what should we do? What is our responsibility? Here we are at Brown University. We’re going to get degrees in engineering and in math and go on to medical school. What’s the nature of our responsibility to the people back in these communities that we left?

I still keep in touch with people who transferred into Brown with me. They come from all over the place, and they’re not necessarily the Third World (Center) students. But across the board, just the brilliance and the sophistication of their thinking — I don’t want to sound trite, but it completely changed my life.


Coming from that background, being an international student and also coming from this very small town, do you have any advice for students who have a similar background?

The one piece of advice I would give is you, all the students, please think hard about just how fortunate you are to be at Brown University, and make sure that you have as broad a set of experiences as you can possibly have.

When you’re 18 to 22, identity is a big deal. Who am I? What community do I belong to? What do I want to do in my life? All these questions are really, really important.

But the one question that I think that Brown students ask in a more pointed way than any other group of students I’ve ever dealt with, certainly back in those days, was, what’s the nature of my responsibility to the rest of the world?

Now, I’ve known great groups of students. I loved the students at Dartmouth when I was there. I thought the Dartmouth students were great.

But I think there is a difference in the sense that you walk into Brown and all around you people are asking that question.

So that’s two pieces of advice. And maybe I’m running out of options, but one is really drink in the enormous diversity of Brown, and make it a point to get to know people from many, many different backgrounds and points of view. And, along with the entire Brown community, ask yourself that question: Given that I’m now receiving this hyper-hyper-super-elite education, what’s the nature of my responsibility to the world?

And I can think of very few places where the asking of that question is supported and encouraged as much as at Brown.


Looking at the global economy, what worries you the most, and how would you like the World Bank to address these problems?

Well, our governors (have) given us some clear targets.

The first is to end extreme poverty by 2030, and that’s people who live on less than $1.25 a day. And that seems like a very low bar, but there are more than a billion people, still, who live on less than $1.25 a day.

The second goal that the governors gave us was to boost shared prosperity. We know that economic growth is critical in order to lift people out of poverty. But there are many countries that have experienced growth in their gross domestic product, but the bottom 40 percent have not been included. So it’s been a very non-inclusive form of GDP growth.

And there are lots of countries that went through that experience and, to a great extent, the reason the Arab Spring happened the way it did was because those countries had growth in GDP, but young people had very few options, and women, of course, had very few options.

And so we’re going to measure every year the extent to which the incomes of the bottom 40 percent are growing along with GDP. (We) should think hard about putting into place policies and programs that grow your economy but that are inclusive of young people, of women, of people who have been, for one reason or another, excluded from getting good jobs.

So those are the official things we work on, and that’s what I worry about every single day.


Our generation, we’re inheriting a world that has all these problems. What qualities do you think upcoming leaders should have?

Well, I’ve thought a lot about leadership. I’ve been in leadership programs. I’ve had three different leadership coaches.

My current leadership coach is someone who has worked with me for the last four or five years. And I think the one lesson that I’ve learned out of all this, and the lesson that he continues to pound into my head every time I talk with him, is humility.

As a leader, you have to do those things that nobody else wants to do, that (are) extremely distasteful at times to do, but you have to have the humility to make yourself do those things that you know are for the good of the organization.

You have to understand how you’re coming off to other people, how people are responding to you, how people are hearing you. And when my coach does it for me, it’s brutal. I mean, you think that you’re doing a good job, but there’s just, without question, always room for improvement.

So the fundamental aspect, for me, of a great leader is to really think hard about how it is that you’re interacting with others. Really think hard about whether you’re doing those things that are critical to make a project or an organization move forward.

Leaders have to be willing to go 100 percent of the way to make something work. That’s really hard to do. It doesn’t seem fair. It seems like everyone else should be doing their share. But leadership means you’re willing to do whatever it takes to meet the goals of the organization.

And I’m in a situation now where the goals of the organization are to end poverty in the world. And, boy, if you can’t find motivation to wake up every day to try to end poverty in the world, then if you’re in the World Bank, you probably need to go somewhere else to work. But I find the motivation every day.

But also, every single day I am faced with the enormity of trying to run this organization of some 15,000 people in 140 countries, all of us trying to think of how we can lift these billion people, or work with countries to help them lift a billion people, out of poverty.


This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.



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