Advice from World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“Set out to do something, don’t set out to be something,” said Jim Yong Kim, MD, speaking candidly to a group of twenty-five Stanford students seated around him. To do that, he advised, will require working across disciplines, breaking down silos and embracing change.

An infectious disease physician, anthropologist, former university president and current president of the World Bank Group, Kim has built his career on cross-disciplinary collaboration and has set out to tackle some of the biggest challenges in global health and development. While delivering the keynote address at the inaugural Global Development and Poverty (GDP) Initiative conference at Stanford on Oct. 29, Kim outlined the World Bank Group’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity. That afternoon, Kim sat down with students to answer questions and dig deeper into some of the greatest issues facing the world today.

The Q&A-style discussion included students from all levels of study and disciplines – undergraduates to postdoctoral scholars and medicine residents – and was facilitated by Paul Wise, MD, MPH, Stanford health policy expert and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Michele Barry, MD, FACP, senior associate dean for global health and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health.

Following are four of Kim’s key pieces of advice for students working in global health and development.

1. Develop skills to solve real world problems.

Focus on the problem you want to solve and figure out what skills, or partners, you’ll need to achieve it. The world doesn’t divide itself up into disciplines. Take the field of medicine for instance; a person’s illness doesn’t divide itself up between different specialties. Diseases are complex and health is impacted by a multitude of external factors such as environment, socioeconomic status, government, cultures and beliefs.

A cofounder of Partners in Health, Kim recognized that tackling the complex health obstacles poor people face in developing countries was a medical, economic, governance and cultural challenge. To improve health, you also have to understand the total system – how money works, how incentives work and the societal norms and practices in any given area. Decide what your responsibility is to the world and build your career around it.

2. Break down barriers of bureaucracy.

In any big organization, and particularly in academia, you will be faced with some level of bureaucracy and disciplinary boundaries. Kim commended Stanford for its multidisciplinary approach to research and encouraged students to retain that spirit of collaboration in their future careers.  

Since taking the helm at the World Bank Group, Kim has led a restructuring of the organization in an effort to provide developing countries with the best global development knowledge and promote collaboration and accountability across the organization. The new structure was designed to break up regional silos by moving the institution’s thousands of subject matter experts into one of 19 Global Practices and Cross Cutting Solutions Areas, which focus on a specific area of expertise, like health and nutrition, water, governance, gender or climate. Kim aimed to empower technical staff to bring the best global knowledge to developing countries and encourage cooperation across development sectors and the entire World Bank Group. Kim expects the change will enable the organization to provide more effective solutions for each country’s development challenges and to achieve its ambitious global development goals.

3. Become climate activists, now.

If you’re not a climate change activist, you’ve got to become one. Kim warned that our world is going to look so very different in the next few decades and those living in or vulnerable to being pushed into extreme poverty will be impacted most. Stanford students belong to a generation projected to witness the end of extreme global poverty, but this progress could be undercut by rising global temperatures, putting food, water and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable populations at risk.

The World Bank Group has joined the international effort to keep global warming under 2°C, a target that must be achieved to avert the worst effects of climate change. Already, if temperatures are to warm 1.5°C above pre-industrial times – which appears locked into Earth’s atmospheric system by past and predicted greenhouse gas emissions – there will be major consequences for small island states and global food security, said Kim. The problem is so enormous, but we have not come up with a strong enough strategy to do much about it. The stakes are too high and academics, policymakers and world leaders must come together to act fast.

4. Prepare not panic.

You will almost certainly be faced with another pandemic in your lifetime; now is the time to prepare. Ebola was another wake-up call to the world, but is likely not going to be the worst epidemic we’ll face in the coming decades. In his keynote address, Kim said most virologists and infectious disease experts predict a more infectious disease will arise in the next 30 years that could lead to more than 30 million deaths and 5 to 10 percent of lost world GDP.

As a global society, we tend to fall into a pattern of what Kim described as “panic-neglect.” In the wake of major outbreaks and natural disasters, panic drives us to action and we are attentive to the bigger issues at play – like health and economic disparities, and climate change. But, as weeks and months pass by, we become more removed from the situation and begin to forget. As Ebola starts to fade from the public radar, we cannot forget the lessons learned or lose track of making preparations for the next global public health threat.

Click here to watch Kim's keynote address at the GDP conference and read more about the event.

The student roundtable was co-hosted by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Center for Innovation in Global Health. It was held as part of the conference, Shared Prosperity and Health: Advancing Global Development through Innovation and Institutions, sponsored by the Global Development and Poverty (GDP) Initiative, a university-wide initiative of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) in partnership with FSI.

By Rachel Leslie I last updated Dec. 3, 2015