President Barack Obama this morning surprised many people with his nomination of Dartmouth College president and global health expert Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank. "It's time for a development professional to lead the world's largest development agency," said Obama in a speech at the White House's Rose Garden.
Kim, a physician and anthropologist who co-founded Partners in Health with Paul Farmer and later headed the HIV/AIDS program at the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke with Science 3 years ago about his decision to move from focusing on global health to the Dartmouth president's office. At the time, Kim headed the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and was widely expected to take a job within the Obama Administration.
Kim, who was born in South Korea, moved to the United States when he was 5 years old and grew up in Iowa. His work with Partners in Health included launching a pioneering program for treating multidrug resistant tuberculosis in Peru. At WHO, he led a program called "3x5" that pushed for the goal of having 3 million HIV-infected people on antiretroviral drugs by 2005. The project did not hit its target, but more than 6 million people now have access to those life-saving drugs.
The World Bank is expected to elect a new president when it holds a meeting on 21 April. The United States traditionally has selected presidents for the bank, but there has been an increasing call for transparency, and Kim's nomination does not guarantee him the job.
Immediately after the Rose Garden ceremony, the White House issued a press release with quotes from supporters of Kim's nomination. Secretary of the Treasury
Timothy Geithner said Kim was "exceptionally well qualified" for the new job as he was "an innovative leader whose groundbreaking work to fight disease and combat poverty has saved lives around the globe." Former President Bill Clinton called Kim an "inspired and outstanding" choice, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame said he was "delighted" by the nomination.
Below are excerpts from Science's 20 March 2009 interview with Kim, who discussed his decision to take the Dartmouth job rather than pursue the possibility of working in the Obama Administration:
Q: A lot of people expected that you'd go work for the Obama Administration. Why didn't you? Were you offered anything? Did you want that? Is that what you expected would happen?
J.Y.K.: There were a lot of conversations. I can't talk about any details because nothing ultimately happened.
It goes back to the same issue: Do I continue to throw my own body at a particular problem and take these problems on directly myself or do I go in a little bit of a different direction and take a really major, and in this case, interestingly, historic leadership position and try to train the next generation? At the end of the day, I'm going to have to travel as president of Dartmouth, but they're hiring me to spend a lot of time on campus, influencing teaching and people. Whereas if I were to take on a job like working in the Obama Administration in global health, it would have been extremely difficult, probably more than 50%, probably closer 70% to 80% of your time on the road with a travel schedule that wouldn't be under your control. And I've done that, reacting to all the different political problems that come up.
It would have been an unbelievable honor and the most exciting, wonderful thing-it would have been working for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Frankly, in my view, it doesn't get much better than that. But the question for us as a family, we have got a new baby, do I continue to throw my body at a problem, on the road 70% to 80% of the time, dealing with political crisis after political crisis, or take on this leadership position?
The say the joke is that Woodrow Wilson left Princeton and went to the U.S government to get away from politics. I don't think that's the case. The politics in a university versus the politics in WHO are totally different. I found that the politics at a university are more influenced by rational discourse than politics in global health, especially in a major bureaucracy.
A lot of people say, 'Well, why did you do that, you shouldn't have done that, you're not going to have an impact on global health.' I'm not sure about that. I've said to quite a few people who've said, 'Jim, you're not going to have the impact," I've said to them, alright, let's make a bet. Let's look 10 years down the line and let's see what kind of impact I've had from Dartmouth on global health issues. …
Q: Were you facing two offers, one from the Obama Administration and one from Dartmouth?
J.Y.K.: I can't tell you that. Let me put it this way: I had to make a lot of really, really tough choices. For me the great excitement I feel around the Dartmouth job is while there's no question that I'm president of Dartmouth first and foremost, Dartmouth has a long history of having presidents engaged in problems of the world.