On January 7 came surprising news out of Washington — as if any news out of Washington isn’t surprising these days. But World Bank president Jim Yong Kim announced his resignation, which was surprising considering he had a few years left on his term. The news ahead will be about his replacement, and President Trump’s historical antipathy toward organizations like the World Bank. In the meantime, we thought you might like to hear this episode from 2015, when we interviewed Kim for Freakonomics Radio. It’s called “Hacking the World Bank.”
Back in 2012, Jim Yong Kim was minding his own business, carrying out his duties as president of Dartmouth College. He was in his third year there. Then his phone rang, and he learned that the president of the United States wanted to hire him away.
Jim Yong KIM: Quite literally on a Monday, a Dartmouth graduate from 1983, Tim Geithner, called me and said, “Jim, would you consider being president of the World Bank?” This is the work that I devoted my entire life to: development and fighting poverty. I called the chair of my board right away and I said, “The president is asking me to consider this. I have to do it.” That was a Monday. I flew down and met with President Obama on a Wednesday.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Did you know him previously?
KIM: I had met him once before. But my first sit-down meeting with him was in the Oval Office to talk about this particular job. Then, on that Friday, we were in the Rose Garden and he was announcing me as the U.S. candidate.
President Barack OBAMA in the Rose Garden: When a nation goes from poverty to prosperity, it makes the world stronger and more secure for everybody. That’s why the leader of the World Bank should have a deep understanding of both the role that development plays in the world, and the importance of creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed. I believe that nobody is more qualified to carry out that mission than Dr. Jim Kim.
KIM: I still had to campaign. I had to compete for the job. But it all happened in the course of one week. It was really quite a whirlwind.
DUBNER: Now, most previous World Bank presidents were either former bankers, lawyers or government officials. You, meanwhile, are a physician, anthropology Ph.D., college president, spent most of your life in academia, nonprofits, not even — I say “not even” an academic economist, as though that were a higher credential, which I don’t mean to imply. But what does it say about the World Bank, President Obama, you, or the shape of the world — especially the shape of development and new ideas in development — that a guy like you wound up in a place like this?
KIM: Well, I remain extremely grateful to President Obama. Now, let me tell you how that conversation went. He put it right on the table, as he always does. He said, “Look, Jim, what am I going to tell the people around me who tell me that I should appoint a macroeconomist? What justification can I give them for nominating you?” I started right off by saying, “Well, President Obama, have you read your mother’s dissertation?” He sat back, looked at me and said, “Yeah, I have.” I said, “Well, you’ll remember that your mother argued that the entire world thought that the artisanal industry in Indonesia would be wiped out, especially metal workers, by globalization. But what she showed was that, in fact, that industry thrived. Globalization actually gave a boost to that industry.” I said, “That’s what I do. I’ve been doing development on the ground for the last 25 years. And so, while I’m not a macroeconomist, I do take a look at things like how incentives work and the reality of development efforts on the ground. I will always bring that perspective.” He looked at me and said, “Okay, I get that.” Later, in a more relaxed moment with President Obama, he said, “You know, Jim, I have to say, that’s one of the best ploys I’ve ever seen. Reading the President’s mother’s thesis is a good strategy.” And we had a good laugh about it.
DUBNER: Yeah, as you were telling the story, I was thinking, “I know this is meant to illustrate the strengths of economic thinking vis-a-vis development, but really I’m thinking most people out there, when they hear this, are going to take it more as an interview tip.” Whenever possible, if the boss has a mother who wrote some dissertation: prepare.
KIM: Prepare, and especially if it’s relevant, which it very much was.
DUBNER: You lucked out, you have to admit, that it was relevant.
KIM: I have to.
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Okay, so here is the best part of the story. It wasn’t just that Jim Yong Kim knew that President Obama’s mother had written a dissertation that was related to his development work — and then went and got it in order to prepare for his meeting with the President. Uh-uh. That’s not the way it happened.
KIM: Well, I was so fascinated by President Obama — dating back to 2004 — that I actually bought her unpublished thesis from the University of Michigan archives and faithfully read the whole thing, long before I went into that interview with President Obama.
But let me say this: The more you hear from Kim, the less surprised you are by anything he’s accomplished. And now he is taking the World Bank in a very different direction, which we’ll hear about. But first, let’s begin at the beginning.
KIM: My name is Jim Yong Kim. I’m the president of the World Bank Group. Our organization last year lent and provided grants of about $65 billion. Our mission is to end extreme poverty in the world and to boost what we call “shared prosperity,” which is a notion that focuses on ensuring that the bottom 40 percent of any developing country shares in whatever economic growth there is.
DUBNER: [The] World Bank is fairly impressive. I understand that your childhood dream — as an immigrant kid in Iowa, where your father was a dentistry professor — was to be quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Bears, so I’m sorry that that didn’t work out. Are you okay with where you wound up?
KIM: I’m very happy with the way it worked out. But in the middle of Iowa — boy, the greatest thing that you could ever become is a professional athlete for one of those teams. I was fully part of that culture and I actually played quarterback for my high school football team. Although some people are impressed with that, I then also have to admit that our high school football team had the longest losing streak in the nation when I was the quarterback.
DUBNER: That’s still a record of some sort that you’re attached to.
KIM: It’s a record. It sure is.
OBAMA in the Rose Garden: Jim was also the chair of the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has earned a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship. For the last three years, he has served as the president of Dartmouth College. I should also mention that, after immigrating to this country from Korea at age five, Jim went on to become the president of his high school class, the quarterback of the football team, the point guard of the basketball team. I just found out he is a five handicap in golf. I’m a little resentful about that last item. But he does it all.
Becoming an M.D., and then an anthropologist, was not Kim’s original plan.
KIM: Let me tell you the story, Stephen. My mother is a philosopher. She’s still alive, still working on her writing, and very involved in her work on East Asian philosophy. My father was a dentist. Dentists are extremely practical people. So I had these two influences in my life. One day I came home from school — and this was one of my first semesters at Brown — and my father picked me up from the airport, which is about 30 miles from our hometown in Iowa. He said, “So, Jim, what do you want to study?” And I said, “I’d like to study politics and philosophy, and I’d like to become a politician.” He slowly pulled the car over to the side of the road, looked back at me, and he said, “Look, Jim, when you finish your internship and residency, you can do anything you want.”
I have had this very practical father, who said, “Look, you’re an Asian in this country, no one’s going to give you anything. If you think you’re going to make it as a politician, you better think again. You can do that, but first and foremost get a skill where you actually can help people.”
DUBNER: Now, let’s go back [to] when you were in nonprofits — or NGOs, or whatever form they were in — where you were trying to bring healthcare — deliver all kinds of different, necessary, and often very primary health care — to especially poor places around the world. You were not a fan of the World Bank. You were active, I’ve read, in the “50 Years is Enough” movement, the campaign to shut the Bank as well as the I.M.F., contending that they did more harm than good. That’s the report at least that I’ve read. Tell me: a) if that report is true, how true it is, and what led to your evolution in thinking about an institution like the World Bank?
KIM: Well, it’s true. There’s actually good evidence that it was true. I was one of the editors on a book that’s entitled Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor. It basically was a critique of the approach that many of the international financial institutions had taken to health. At the time, what we were arguing was that an overly narrow focus on growth of G.D.P. was really not the approach that we thought would lead to the results that everyone seemed to want to have. In other words, there were arguments that you should restrict social spending, including on health and education. What we were arguing is that we should focus on more than just G.D.P. growth, and we should really try to take a much more nuanced view of what are the factors that are important in lifting people out of poverty.
That’s really the direction that the World Bank has gone in a major way in the last 20 years. I’m very glad we lost the “50 Years Is Enough” argument because the institution is very different now than it was before. That’s what made it possible for me to lead the institution. The ideas have changed. This is what you guys have done so beautifully in both Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, is you’ve made hypotheses but then you’ve looked at the data. The data now are overwhelming, in that investments in health and education, for example, are critical aspects of a growth strategy. Larry Summers published a paper just a year ago showing that in low- and middle-income countries, fully 25 percent of the economic growth experienced between 2000 and 2011 was due to better health outcomes.
We don’t, at this institution — and we have not for a long time — thought about health and education as simply expenditures. We now think of them as fundamental investments in human capital that will lead to growth. This is what’s great about the World Bank Group; the institution itself has really looked at the data, really looked at the evidence carefully, and we’ve shifted a great deal.
DUBNER: The World Bank released a World Development Report titled “Mind, Society, and Behavior,” which I have to admit does not sound, right off the bat, like a World Bank report form the past, for sure. It argues for a new viewpoint, or new mindset for attacking poverty. If you could begin, Dr. Kim, just tell me the background. Were you behind this? Who was behind it and what was the impetus?
KIM: It came out of a pretty straightforward discussion that Kaushik Basu, our chief economist — himself, originally from India, but a celebrated professor of economics, development economics, at Cornell for many years. He and I were just sitting down one day. We started talking about behavioral economics and some of the work that I had become fascinated with when I was at Dartmouth, about things like willpower and grit, and how they had an impact on success in life and development. He suggested one day that we just take this on. That’s how it came to pass. It was a recognition that we really needed a rethink of where we were going with development strategy.
We also wanted to bring into the discourse of the World Bank Group these thinkers who’ve been so influential in academia, but had been much less influential inside the World Bank.
DUBNER: Interesting. As I read the report, it struck me as a best-practices white paper that distills much of the field, if not the entire field of behavioral economics — and highlights the cognitive biases, illusions and the antidotes to those problems — that a lot of people have been thinking, talking and writing about for many years, as you’ve said, primarily within academia, but not exclusively. One point the report makes is that a lot of these insights are, in retrospect, pretty obvious: things like framing, and anchoring, and social norms, which other people call peer pressure. It struck me that Adam Smith, who we commonly think of as the father of classical economics, was probably a lot more in tune with that human side of the human being than most economists of the mid- and late-20th century.
I’m curious how you think that economics — again, granted, not your field, but you certainly know plenty about it — how do you think economics got so far away from considering a human being, what to be a human being really is? Why has it taken so long and so much effort to get back to this new old view?
KIM: Well, it’s a great question. I, as an anthropologist — in grad school we did read Adam Smith, and most of us were very surprised to hear him writing about moral sentiments and the profound moral voice that really is everywhere in his work and his writing. There is a field of economic anthropology that’s been around for a long time. I remember in one of my first early seminars in anthropology graduate school, we took on the phenomenon of the potlatch. Now, in the Northwest Coast, Northwest Coast Indians would try to outduel each other in seeing how much of their most valuable possessions they could burn. That was the potlatch. And, of course, from a rational perspective, why on earth would you burn your most valuable things?
Franz Boas, one of the early patriarchs of the field of anthropology, went deeper and deeper into it, and showed that, in fact, social status was so important to the Northwest Coast Indians that they were willing to do this. The benefits from doing this were greater, often, than what they would burn. We had been trying to make sense of seemingly irrational behavior in anthropology for a very long time. The assumptions that economists make about rationality have actually led to the rapid development and growth of the field. Economists have — generally speaking, compared to other social sciences — been much more focused on quantification and sophisticated modeling. You have to have a set of assumption[s] in order to make a field that’s trying to do that grow. They started with that.
But we have to remember Daniel Kahneman won his Nobel Prize on looking at different ways of thinking and questioning the assumptions that economists were making in 2002. His work predates that by quite a bit. We really took his notion that there’s these two kinds of thinking — fast thinking, slow thinking — and try to apply it to development work. The fundamental messages are that, one, people think automatically, quickly, and they don’t think on the basis of ration, reason, looking through the evidence; that people think socially. In other words, other people who have the same thoughts influence them quite a bit. They work on the basis of mental models that are often unconscious.
We looked at those three kinds of thinking and tried to understand if there had been examples of people utilizing that insight to actually get better outcomes. And we found quite a few.
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We are talking today with Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. He and Kaushik Basu, the Bank’s chief economist, commissioned a report that is meant to translate the best behavioral research from academia into real-world solutions to address poverty.
DUBNER: The most persuasive — to me — part of this World Bank report is a table listing examples of highly cost-effective behavioral interventions. I’d like you to talk about a few of these with me. Your favorites, whether it’s addressing adherence to medical regimen, immunization rates, traffic accidents, aspirations and investment. They really run the whole scope of humankind. Underpinning the success of all of these — to some degree, through your view as a World Bank president — is poverty, and that alleviating poverty would help all these things, which most people might not connect necessarily with poverty.
KIM: Again, this goes back to the brilliance of economists, and how they have been focused on measuring and trying to get real evidence and real data. One of my favorites is that, in Jamaica, they had an intervention with stunted children. In other words, these are children who had low weight and height for age. At a certain point, stunting means that your brain literally has not been developing as it should. It’s really hard to get that back. It’s hard to catch up. There was a very simple intervention, where they had young students go and meet with mothers of stunted children. They tried all kinds of different interventions — income supplements — but one of the interventions was to just have young people come and stress [to] mothers in very poor settings, who had other stunted children, how important it was for them to interact with their children.
Now, this was done once a week for two years. Then, 22 years later, they looked at these kids. And so, and they looked at all the different inputs, and the one input that had the biggest difference was that intervention where they went and told mothers to interact with their kids more. That particular group of stunted children had incomes that were equal to the non-stunted children. Those that did not have that intervention had incomes that are 25 to 30 percent lower than the non-stunted children. It’s incredible how these interventions can have that impact.
DUBNER: Let me just make sure that I understand the mechanism here: it’s basically stimulating vocabulary, language and thinking. Is that the idea of what’s going on that moves things forward?
KIM: Right. In other words, these were not mothers who were deliberately neglecting their children. But over years, they developed different practices. You wrap up the kids and put them on your back or whatever, and you don’t have that much interaction. But if you specifically said, “It’s very important for you to interact with your children in this way,” the mothers did it, and it had this incredible impact 22 years later. This is a great lesson for us. We have to, in every culture, be sure that we’re actually giving that advice. If there’s stunting, first of all you try to improve their nutritional status, but this issue of interacting with children is also really critical. By changing these mothers’ mental model, it had this impact that was measurable, economically, 22 year later. There are others as well.
Another one that I love is one that affected people’s understanding, socially, of the importance of using less water. This was in Colombia in the late ’90s. They simply published in the newspaper how much water all the different people and companies and groups were using. There was an overall decrease in water consumption that persisted. In other words, knowing that your neighbors are trying to save, or knowing that you’re not saving and they’re going to see it in the newspaper, had a huge impact on people’s use of water. Similarly, in trying to reduce the number of accidents on the road in Kenya, they put messages on buses that said: if you see someone driving recklessly, look out the window, scream and yell at them and tell them to stop doing it. Everywhere you are, scream and yell at people who are driving recklessly.
It reduced insurance claims by 50 percent, just to have the social pressure build in that particular way. We are going to use this in World Bank Group. We’re going to capture all of these great examples, and we’ve totally reorganized the Bank to do just that. We now have what we call “global practices.” Their charge is to look all over the world and find out how specific countries have had success utilizing these insights that come from psychology. In doing that, we hope that they will then take these examples and then adapt them for the local context. As an anthropologist, of course, you can imagine I’m going to insist that we respect local contexts. But we feel that we can make tremendous progress if we capture these ideas and bring them to poor countries.
But also we’re looking internally, because our strong assumption is that automatic thinking, socially-influenced thinking and mental models affect the way we assess projects. We actually did a study of our own staff.
DUBNER: With the skin cream and the —.
KIM: Yes! The skin cream and the minimum wage. And asked them to use the same set of data. Of course, we adapted it to talk about the skin cream. We had them assess whether skin cream A or B is better for skin rashes. Then, using exactly the same data, but in a different context, we asked them to assess whether the minimum wage increased or decreased poverty rates. They did much better in getting the right answer because, based on the data, there was clearly a right answer for both of these questions; they did much better with the skin cream than they did with minimum wage, because our staff came in with preconceived notions and mental models about the importance of minimum wages.
What we’re going to do, specifically inside the Bank, is try to figure out ways where we can get them to do what Daniel Kahneman called “slow thinking.” Can we get them to be more deliberative, to be more focused on the mechanics of a particular project or particular intervention, to really consider data first before they jump to a conclusion? Can leaders like me keep their mouths shut, for example, to not influence, socially, where a group ends up landing on a particular decision?
DUBNER: The report notes that the private sector has already adopted a lot of these behavioral approaches because, and I’ll quote, “When failure affects the profit-making bottom line, product designers begin to pay close attention to how humans actually think and decide.” Dr. Kim, why has it taken nonprofits, including the development sector, so long to buy in? Do you think that it’s simply the absence of the market and the needs that exist within the market? Is it the downplaying of R.O.I. within the nonprofit sector? Is it a philosophical point?
KIM: Market forces are critical here. Sometimes people say, “The private sector does everything better.” I don’t know that that’s really the case, so much as that the private sector entities that did it poorly no longer exist because they go out of business. Public sector entities can stay in business for a very long time, no matter how poor their performance is. And so this is part of what I’ve been obsessed with for about the past 20 years. I’ve been trying to understand — in the absence of market forces — how can you raise the temperature so that people really focus on improving execution? Because in the public sector, not only do we tolerate poor execution, but often, unfortunately, we celebrate poor execution. Poor execution sometimes for people is a symbol of the fact that you’re public and not private sector.
Now, I do not at all think that the private sector does it all correctly. But the folks who do it right — and if you were to go to Ogilvy or any of the big public relations companies and give them this, they would laugh at us, in the sense that they have been utilizing these insights very aggressively for a very long time. In the public sector, there are some really great examples of having used this before. One example comes from an institution that I used to be part of, Harvard School of Public Health. They very consciously tried to get the notion of a designated driver into sitcoms in Hollywood. Once they got it into sitcoms, it became part of the overall mental model that everyone used, and it’s now ubiquitous.
It was, truly, the genius of a group of brilliant public health professionals who realized that they had to shift the mental model on driving while drunk. Cigarette smoking is another one. We’ve done it in bits and pieces. What we’re trying to do now is do it on a much larger scale.
DUBNER: I’m curious, as a trained M.D., whether you [think] this research is slower to be taken up in the areas where it’s really needed — in development in this case — or faster than in medicine?
KIM: When you look at innovations in medicine, it’s not as if you have a new discovery and then immediately everyone in the United States is implementing it. In fact, the lag time from having a really new discovery of something that’s on the market, that’s doable right now, to a point when the vast majority of doctors are using them, is 17 years. I’ve — with a bunch of colleagues, and here now at the World Bank — we talk a lot about the science of delivery. In other words, let’s not just focus on the basic research that tells us about the molecular mechanisms or, for example, economics that might be fundamental theoretical modeling based on mathematical models. Let’s not focus just on the things that we can prove in scientific studies actually work. Let’s now focus on how you deliver those insights. Let’s focus, and be as rigorous as we can be, about how you take things to scale. One of my good friends in global health used to say to me, “Jim, I am so sick of pilot project-ology. When can we get onto the field of scale up-ology?” Right? That’s got to be our main focus, because if we’re going to end extreme poverty by 2030, every model we have of growth suggests to us that with the pessimistic, with the midway, or the optimistic model of economic growth, we’re not going to get to less than 3 percent extreme poverty by 2030. If our job is to fundamentally change the poverty elasticity of growth, we’ve got to be effective, and we’ve got to take effective solutions, scale them, and scale them more quickly than we ever have.
[MUSIC: Juan Mejia “La Gua Gua” (from 2012 Productions)]
The World Bank has its fans and its detractors. I have to say, it’s hard to imagine that Jim Yong Kim could have too many detractors – he seems to bring so many talents to the job. He’s smart, plainly — experienced, compassionate, he’s a good executive. Don’t forget, he’s an M.D. as well. So I know what you’re thinking: that’s disturbing! Isn’t there anything he’s bad at? Well, I am happy to report that he is not a very good singer.
KIM singing in Dartmough Idols Finals: I had the time of my life and I never felt this way before. And I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.
That is from a student talent show at Dartmouth, when Kim was president there. But honestly, even his singing wasn’t that bad. He also danced and rapped. You know what? He wasn’t that bad at any of those either. So what does the talent show really teach us? It teaches us that Jim Yong King has something that very few others in official Washington have: the ability to not take yourself too seriously. And so, even though he is the President of the World Bank, we asked him to go through a blitz version of our FREAK-quently Asked Questions. He agreed, of course.
DUBNER: Dr. Kim, if you would tell us in 60 seconds or less what you actually do in a given day.
KIM: I spend a lot of time going through my briefing books, which look like real books. I get one every day. I’m in meetings all the time with all kinds of people, and I try to, one, keep my mouth shut when me saying something could influence a decision we make, and then make a decision when no one else can make a decision.
DUBNER: What’s the best investment you’ve ever made — financial, emotional, educational, any kind of investment — in getting to where you are today?
KIM: It’s rather simplistic, but late in my life, when I was 24, I started learning languages. I only really spoke English until I was 24. When I was 24, I learned to speak Korean because I went back to Korea to do my dissertation research. Now I speak Korean, which has been great, especially in all of my work with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations. It’s been great to be able to have secret conversations in the middle of chaos. Then later, I learned to speak Spanish. It really was worthwhile for me to do that. I just desperately regret not having done more of that when I was younger.
DUBNER: Who’s been the biggest influence on your life and work, and why?
KIM: Fundamentally, it’s been my mother, who was a neo-Confucian philosopher. But she’s been so influential. I was reading the speeches and the writings of Martin Luther King when I was nine years old, so Martin Luther King has certainly been a huge influence. People like Martin Luther King —people who have taken an idea fundamentally rooted in moral convictions and then changed the world — are the people who inspire me.
DUBNER: Tell us one thing you’ve habitually spent too much on but do not regret.
KIM: Oh gosh. It’s food. It’s eating at restaurants all over the world. In fact, I have a rule: when I travel to a developing country, for every meal, I want native food as opposed to thinking that I need Western food. I’ve spent a lot of money at a lot of different restaurants. Also with my children. We love to eat.
DUBNER: Do you cook as well?
KIM: Not very well. I used to a lot more, but not much these days.
DUBNER: Tell me one thing you own that you should probably throw out but never will.
KIM: I have a collection of golf putters that I just can’t seem to throw away. It’s part of golf. Golf allows for a lot of magical thinking, and so I remember the magical putts I made with some of these putters. So I’ve kept them, and kept them, and kept them, despite efforts of everyone around me to throw them out.
DUBNER: The next question was: what do you collect and why? Just asked and answered, or answered without being asked. What’s the one story that your family — maybe it’s your kids, maybe it’s your parents — always tells about you?
KIM: My brother likes to tell this story. My brother is a gastroenterologist in Los Angeles. And he always says that if he and I were to come to a wall with three doors, he would quickly and automatically go through the door that was open, but that I would put my head through the wall, just in case that was a better way to approach getting to the other side. Of course, the story is that I’ve always chosen the most difficult path. But it served me very well.
DUBNER: Interesting. That either leads perfectly into or totally obviates my final question, which is: I wanted you to tell me about something that you once quit, why, and how it worked out. But if you’re willing to put your head through a wall, you may never have quit anything at all. Did you?
KIM: I did. I actually quit my infectious disease fellowship. Now, this was in about the 30th consecutive year of being involved in education from the age of five. So it wasn’t as if I gave up prematurely. But the credential I would get is to be able to treat people with infectious diseases in hospitals in the United States, and I just realized I’d never do that. I’ve continued to work on tuberculosis and H.I.V., and now Ebola. But I did quit that.
DUBNER: Dr. Kim, thanks so much, it was a pure pleasure to speak with you. I learned a lot, and I’m sure everyone listening will as well. Thanks so much for making the time.
KIM: Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for doing this.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Alvin Melathe, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.
- “World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior,” from the World Bank.
- Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, by S. Ann Dunham (Barack Obama’s Mother) (Duke University Press 2009).