Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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World Bank president Jim Kim delivered a speech and responded to questions today at Brookings in his first public event since taking the helm at the world’s top development organization on July 1.  He struck me as thoughtful, well-informed, articulate and dedicated to multilateralism and the bank’s mission of reducing global poverty. You can see his speech and the Q&A here.

The two things that interested me most came up during the Q&A. The first was Kim's response to a question I asked, channeling Nancy Birdsall, about the potential for the bank to become more active and effective in providing global public goods.  I noted that many of the difficulties facing poor people in developing countries are problems of the global commons. Runaway climate change is the most obvious; others include fisheries collapse, emerging diseases and drug resistance.  Yet the bank’s primary instrument remains the country loan. I wanted to know if Kim thought it necessary to seek a mandate for the bank to provide global public goods and whether it needed a new instrument or could respond within the existing structures. He cleverly claimed a mandate in his response, while deflecting the question about whether a new instrument is needed.

“My understanding of global public goods has been from my global health background. Tuberculosis and other epidemics cross borders and you absolutely need global mechanisms to deal with those problems,” he began.  “I think our governors—the board—expect the World Bank to play a very large role in climate change issues and other environmental issues and trying to make contributions around global public goods.  We’ll simply have to figure out over time the best mechanisms to do that.”

Later, in response to a question about possible World Bank support for a lignite-fueled power plant in Kosovo (see the excellent NYT story by Lisa Friedman), Kim returned to the question of climate, expressing alarm that impacts of temperature rise that had not been expected until average temperatures were substantially higher are occurring now.

“I am trained as a scientist,” he said. “I have to tell you that the data that I’m seeing about changes that are happening today that we didn’t think would happen until we got to two to three degrees , this is extremely disturbing to me. We have to put the science of climate change in front of all our member countries and I guarantee to do that.”

On the specific question of World Bank support for projects involving coal, he discussed the tensions between the need for energy for development and the need to protect the environment. Noting the diversity of views on the bank’s board, he said that developing countries reply to the rich countries opposed to World Bank investments in coal: “You also use coal.”

The second thing that struck me was a question about whether the World Bank would offer advice to high-income countries, such as Greece. The answer today was a bit of a waffle but I discovered later in chatting with Reuter’s Lesley Wroughton that Kim had clearly endorsed this idea at his first news conference on July 2, as she reported here.

"We only go into countries when asked, but I feel the kind of expertise we have could be relevant in many, many countries in the world, including high-income countries," Kim told the press. The idea is that the bank would be paid for these advisory services, a practice it has previously employed with non-borrowing members such as Chile and Kazakhstan that have asked for World Bank advice.

This makes lots of sense to me and would be very much in line with Nancy’s vision of the World Bank as a global mutual assistance club.