Around the Institute

Jim Kim’s Moral Compass

April 13, 2015  • Peggy Clark

Above, watch the full conversation between World Bank President Jim Kim and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

Recently, World Bank President Jim Kim joined Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson in conversation at the Aspen Institute for a thoughtful exploration of issues ranging from activism, to women’s rights and health, to big data, to Alibaba; they also discussed the role of the World Bank on the eve of the adoption of new development goals for the next several decades.

Since Kim took the helm at the World Bank in 2012, the world has watched and wondered how a former activist who smuggled TB drugs into Haiti with Partners in Health, and marched on Washington 40 years ago to close down the World Bank, would reinvent this Bretton Woods organization. In his tenure, Kim has led major reforms at the Bank, and has both fans and detractors. Who is Kim, and what grounds his choices in this key role?

I must admit, I have been star-struck by Kim and his former partner and humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer since I first read about their improbable “preference for the poor” concept in author Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” But that was the 1970s and this is 2015. Does Kim carry allegiance to the poor in his heart still, and how can he remain rooted in this concept as his true North Star running one of the largest global institutions in the world?

Perhaps there is some inkling of an answer in the talk between Kim and Isaacson in the green room before the formal presentation, where they discussed Robert Coles, the Harvard psychologist who taught Kim and who had a major influence on his life; their shared love of Walker Percy, the novelist; and the links between the humanities and the sciences. Coles is one of the great moral visionaries of our times. He writes, “Morality defines not only how we get along with the world and one another, and the rules of life; it characterizes our very nature.” Coles urges us to see morality not as a side issue, or merely a theoretical construct, but as the central issue of our existence.

There is surely no better place to practice a deeply grounded moral responsibility to others than the World Bank. My advice to Kim is to step away from the bright lobby thick with finance ministers to take a quiet moment with Coles. And then, after this deep breath, return again to draft the next set of development goals with the kind of bravery that is able to challenge large corporations and the most powerful states. Invest in the most fragile governments and health systems; look for those true public sector leaders in even the most corrupt regimes, those who are not afraid to put their heads above the parapet to loudly call for the right thing.

Invest, deeply and generously, in women and girls. Look for the non-quantifiable web that weaves connections between the disparate development goals — and find a way to invest in it. The most powerful levers to address persistent poverty lie in poverty’s connection to health, to the environment, and to culture — in embracing a more integrated, dare I say it — moral, not technical — approach to ending poverty. If this is your vision, onward, Jim Kim, we are with you.

Peggy Clark is s the vice president of policy programs, executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development, and director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise