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Exclusive Interview

Exclusive Interview: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President Of The World Bank: You Have to Prevent Your Heart From Hardening

In an exclusive interview for the Original, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank offers wise words about how to do the impossible. As a global leader who cares deeply about humanity, he reveals that the stories his parents told him shaped his sense of commitment for the greater good and the many moral choices he would later make in life
Author: Ksenija Pavlovic
Datum: 17/06/2016

Exclusive Interview: Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President Of The World Bank: You Have to Prevent Your Heart From Hardening

Photo credits Grant ellis/World Bank

At seven o’clock on a frosty Wednesday morning I made my way from New York City to the HQ of the World Bank Group in Washington D.C., to meet Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. Near the Farragut Square, I found myself at a hub for global change, a financial institution that is working around the clock to free the world from poverty. 

As I entered the hallway, I stepped into the silvery elevator where the protocol officer took me to the top floor.

There, in an open, translucent space, with a coffee bar and a meeting area for the World Bank Group employees, Dr. Kim’s staff waited for me, informing me that President is working around the clock and is in back-to-back meetings since he will only be in Washington D.C. for the next 48 hours.

A few minutes after, in an elegant dark grey suit, entered the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim. After uncomplainingly posing for a photographer, he sat straight in his chair turning his laser focus on the subject of our conversation.

The dream of ending poverty and inequality glimmers in every aspect of President’s Kim philosophy. His life story reads as an inspirational memoir. From his first job as a waiter at the Octagon House restaurant in Iowa to becoming the key player in leading the change in international development, one thing Dr. Kim knows for sure is that optimism is a moral choice.

Through struggle, soul searching and victory of conquering opportunities, President Kim has dedicated his life to global causes and the pursuit of excellence. As a global leader who cares deeply about humanity, he revealed that the stories his parents told him shaped his sense of commitment for the greater good and the many moral choices he would later make in life.

Photo credits Grant ellis/World Bank



My mother’s grandfather was the first Christian in the family, but for ten, fifteen generations before her grandfather, they were all Confucian scholars. They were equivalent to PhDs. They were court scholars, so they worked literally in the court of the King, so scholarship was part of her family all along.

My father’s family was not as scholarly, but my grandfather had some education. He was a musician, a violinist. My father escaped from North Korea after the borders closed when he was 19, and he came down to the South to get an education, specifically to become a dentist.

My mother came to this country when she was 18, as one of the top students in Korea. She got a top scholarship to come to America. She ended up, interestingly, going back to her family roots and getting a PhD in Confucian philosophy. She studied at a place called Union Theological Seminary. It had some of the most prominent intellectuals of that period. These were the people who were the most open to these ideas, and she passed those ideas to us very early on.

My mother used to say to me and my brother and sister, “You have to live your life as if for eternity.” What kind of mother says something like that? It’s almost cruel in some way. But she’d always say that to us. 


When I was eight or nine years old, I was reading and watching televised speeches, for instance, of civil rights leaders. I was very impacted, on a very personal level, by the sense that we should be tackling some major fundamental issue. In other words, we shouldn’t be doing something that’s ‘of the moment’, but rather focus on something that’s eternal. That’s something that’s always gotten me the most excited. I was most focused, most able to work for long periods, if I had the sense that I was working for something that was eternal.

I had these two influences in my life: my father, a dentist, who was incredibly practical, who taught us to work, get a degree. He used to say to us, ‘You have to be practical. You’re a `Chinaman’ living in this country. No one’s going to give you anything.’’

In fact, there’s a story that I tell after my first semester home from Brown University, I told my dad that I’m studying politics and philosophy, and he said, ‘After you finish your medical school residency, you can do whatever you want.’ That’s actually what I ended up doing, except I first got to medical school then I started a PhD program in anthropology. So I’ve always had both of these elements in me. My father was right in the sense that it’s one thing to have big ideas about equality and it’s another to take those ideas and make them actually work on the ground.

My parents grew up in the middle of nothing, and the entire country was destroyed. When I was born, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and I think in that sense, one of the reasons why I identified so much with Novak and Jelena Djokovic is that, like my parents, they grew up in war. That’s the situation we came from. 



The dream of ending poverty and inequality glimmers in President’s Kim philosophy. From his first job as a waiter at the Octagon House restaurant in Iowa to becoming the key player in leading the change in international development, one thing Dr. Kim knows for sure is that optimism is a moral choice. His pursuit of excellence and passion for ending inequality has earned him wide recognition. He was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and was named one of America’s “25 Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report . TIME magazine proclaimed him among “100 Most Influential People in the World”. Today, President Kim is resolute about ending childhood stunting and welcomes the partnership the World Bank has forged with the Novak Djokovic Foundation. 

We know that inequality and poverty are major issues around the world. I think that if you look around, and look at the history of the last 50-to-100 years, when countries have tried to equalize outcomes, it hasn’t worked very well. I think those systems have fallen apart. If you look at the countries that are socialist, you’ll see that most have stopped trying to equalize outcomes. They really tried to use market forces to grow the economy, and they’ve been spectacularly successful. Two good examples are China and Vietnam. Those two countries have done very, very well in reducing extreme poverty. I think what you have to look at then is to try to equalize opportunity. That’s what we’re very committed to doing at the World Bank Group.



I’m so excited about Novak and Jelena taking up the early childhood development, because, in my view, one of the greatest sins that all of us are committing every day is allowing the persistence of childhood stunting. Childhood stunting is a proxy-measure for under-nourishment, under-stimulation, or in some cases having grown up in a toxic environment. We know the lack of early childhood development interventions for these children literally means they will have fewer neuronal connections in their brains. I mean their grey matter, their brain infrastructure, will not be fully developed. There are countries that have 20, 30, 40, sometimes close to 50 percent rates of childhood stunting. That’s extremely serious. We know the ability to compete in the global market of the future will require everyone to be able to engage the digital world. So if we allow this to continue, some countries are allowing almost half the population to grow up in a way that will not allow them to become part of the digital economy of the future. 

To have someone like Novak Djokovic and Jelena, have the two of them, stand up and say, ‘This issue of early childhood development is the most fundamental issue related to poverty and inequality,’ is so important. I’m going to meetings and amplifying their message, and asking people, ‘What about you?’ I think that if you’re not committed to ending childhood stunting, then you’re not really committed to addressing inequality.



And where does equality of opportunity start? If you look around at what development paths are open to countries, it’s not at all clear that low-cost manufacturing, that built of Korea, China, and so many of these countries that have become middle-income and some of these have become high-income, that may not be open to the poorest countries today. Because robotics, artificial intelligence, it could be that once again, low-cost manufacturing is going to be completely capitalized. In other words, it’s the people who can afford to invest in the machines that are going to make all the profits from low-cost manufacturing. So given that, what we know for sure, is that every single child has to have their full complement of neuronal connections, so whatever the economy looks like in five, ten, fifteen years, they’ll be able to compete, and to adapt. 

For me, poverty and inequality starts with pregnant women. If we’re not committed to making sure that the pregnant women, and children up to the age of five, have everything that they need, and they continue with their education after that, then we’re really creating fundamentally unfair conditions for those children. Those children, through absolutely no fault of their own, happened to be born in environments where they’re condemned to not having the same kind of brain structure, literally, as other kids.



To understand how Jim Yong Kim ended up on top of the World Bank, one must understand what’s determining his mindset. If we look at all the studies on achievement, what’s now overwhelmingly clear is that intelligence plays a really small part in it. 

It has nothing to do with intelligence, it has everything to do with diligence, persistence, willpower,  affirmed President Kim. 

Can these be learned?, I asked.

Absolutely. It’s really difficult to permanently change your IQ. Your IQ is pretty steady throughout your life. The one think you can change is your willpower and diligence. And there’s a book that I recommend by Roy Baumeister called Willpower. In this book, he shows that willpower is like a muscle that you build. You build up your willpower and you can be really strong. If you don’t work on building it, it atrophies just like a muscle.

In his life, there were times when Dr. Kim faced difficulties, moments he openly talks about. In these moments he held onto his faith and disciplinary upbringing that prepared him for challenges in life.

I have to tell you, I think there have been times where I think I’ve shown great willpower and there have been times where I’ve shown terrible willpower. It’s all about the influences in your life that make you go forward. So, I think over the last twenty or so years, my influences have been mostly this desire to pursue social justice and to be on the side of the helpless and the poor. Before that, a lot of it had to do with my father.

My father was a strict disciplinarian. I remember when my brother and I in high school would come home on Friday night, and he’d say, ‘You need to start right now on your homework -- because if it gets to Sunday afternoon and you haven’t done your homework, then I will not allow you to do your homework.’ We didn’t take him seriously, and there were many weekends that we got to Sunday afternoon, and he’d say, ‘Too late, if you haven’t started by now, I’m not going to let you do your homework.’ My brother and I would sneak downstairs, because we had a basement with a ping-pong table, and we’d do our homework. When we’d hear the door open to the basement, we’d start playing ping pong. So we’d just be sitting beside the ping-pong table, doing our homework. My father was just very strict.

When I was at Brown University, I was so interested in politics, in Asian-American politics, the politics of the developing world. I was so interested in it that it was hard for me to focus on organic chemistry class and all the other things I had to do in order to get into medical school. I just thought about what my father would say if I got a B, or worse, and that just got me through the most difficult periods.



Knowing the lessons of life’s struggle, President’s Kim father always wanted to make sure that his kids were not leading sheltered lives. His father was a man, who at the age of nineteen, right after the war, went to Seoul, without a penny to his name, and somehow got himself into medical school. He couldn’t afford to even eat in the student cafeteria; he had to go in the streets to eat his meals.

My father often told me the story about the police coming to stop people from eating noodles on the street. When police came, everyone else would drop their bowls and run, but my father would keep his bowl, and keep eating until he finished, and then he’d drop his bowl and run. For him, that was a story of what it was like for him at that time. And he always worried that us, his kids, were too soft, that we didn’t understand the importance of willpower. 

He used to tell us that his father was a violin player, and that when he was falling asleep during his studies, his father would come and hit him with a violin club. But he did things like not letting us do our homework on a Sunday night because this was the worst punishment to try and teach us to do things ahead of time. I wonder if I ever really learned that lesson, just because I have so many things to do and it’s hard to stay on top.




From 1993 until 2009, Kim taught at Harvard Medical School, led the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS Department, and served as a President of Dartmouth College. In March 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated him to become the President of the World Bank Group. Kim’s election was one of the great markers in the history of this financial institution. Although, as physician and anthropologist, he did not have a background in finance, his work with poor communities and true devotion to tackling the most daring problems in international development made him the best candidate for the role. President Kim has ticked off most of the list of his achievements since he became the 12th president of the World Bank on July 1, 2012. However, he believes there is much more to do. 

I think what’s really driven me, especially in the last 20 years, is that there are so many great ideas, we understood the reality of what it was like for poor people, and we would run into these people in places and we thought, ‘Hey, they’re just like us, they care about health in developing countries.’ But so many people who work in low-income countries always had such low aspirations for poor people. As we study theology, philosophies, the best ideas, we didn’t want to fall prey to small ideas that punish the poor. A small idea that punished the poor, for instance, is saying you can only do things that are cost-effective,. But what does that mean? Cost effective in what sense? Does that mean we are saying that their lives are less valuable than our lives? In what sense is it cost effective?

So we have tried to reject the notion that even basic health services are not possible because it’s not cost-effective. We used to say well we know, we work in many, many countries, and we’ve never met a single person that’s come to us and has said: ‘You know what, don’t treat me cause I’m not cost effective.’ Every single person we’ve ever met wanted themselves to live, wanted their children to live, wanted their parents to live. And we tried to simply match power to aspirations, and if you match your aspirations to the people you serve, then you have to have huge aspirations.

Challenging previous conventional wisdom that drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS could not be treated in developing countries, Dr. Kim’s NGO called Partners In Health successfully tackled these diseases by integrating large-scale treatment programs into community-based primary care. 

Back to what I said about the importance of being optimistic for the poor, it really gets to what we saw, in these communities. We come in and we say you should build health programs and all sort of things, and people would look at us and say, ‘You guys are crazy, it’s impossible.’ And part of it, I believe, is because they are thinking, ‘If it was possible, I would have done it. And who are you to tell me that I haven’t had high aspirations?‘

We told people all the time that they didn’t have high aspirations for the poor, and that’s why there’s a lot of people still very angry at us. They don’t like us very much. They almost couldn’t believe what we were saying. You’d think that if you go to a country and say that we want to treat tuberculosis patients for drug resistance, you’d think they’d say, ‘It’s really hard and we haven’t been able to do it, thank you for being concerned, and we would like to help you.’ That’s not what they did. They said instead: ‘How dare you? How dare you suggest that it’s possible to treat these people? It’s impossible to treat these people!’ So what we did was, we said fine, we’ll treat them and we showed that it could be done,. We did this on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and we did this on HIV. And I think that those two things really did change the world. 

Just showing that it could be done forced everyone to stop saying that it’s impossible. So what I say is, often, is when you’re dealing with problems of the extreme poor, optimism is a moral choice. Because if you’re cynical and pessimistic, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you’re a powerful person, you come into a poor community, and you’re cynical and pessimistic, that will, without question, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.




If you go into a poor community, and you try to match your aspirations with the poor themselves, you can’t help but be optimistic. And we’ve just had these amazing experiences where just with absolute 100% certainty, everyone, literally, everyone in the field, was telling us it was impossible to do, and we actually did it. We changed policy and we changed the world. So now part of my optimism is based on real experience. But when we started, it wasn’t based on real experience - it was based on faith. There was faith and there was humility in the face of the suffering of the poor.

It was devastating, to see, on a regular basis, people dying of things that you know you can quickly cure in the United States, and yet you are watching people die in front of you. Then you get the very real sense of just how unfair it is. Now, there are many people who become used to it, or resigned to it, and that is very dangerous. That’s where the cynicism starts.

You build up this self-protection that says, ‘There’s nothing else that can happen here. I’ve done everything I can. It’s just the nature of the world.’ People build up that kind of self-defense.

If you read through our study of philosophy and religion, and various moral discourses, we’ve said to everybody on our team, that’s the one thing you have to prevent yourself from becoming, you have to prevent your heart from hardening.





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