In a speech delivered at the George Washington University on October 1, 2013, World Bank Group president Dr. Jim Yong Kim made an impassioned moral case for the eradication of extreme poverty by 2030. In this speech, Kim argued that the number of people living worldwide on less than $1.25 a day is a “stain on our moral conscience.” He has continued to echo this message, most recently and prominently at the 2013 World Bank Group/IMF Annual Meetings, held in Washington D.C. But is this a stain on people worldwide, or is it solely on the moral conscience of the World Bank as an institution? It should be both. Taking a moral approach to the eradication of worldwide poverty is not a new concept. However, the World Banks’ renewed commitment to a morality-based approach is surely a good image-builder for the organization. Though the World Bank seeks to meet the needs of the world’s poor, care should be taken to dispassionately consider its past failures. The World Bank has recently sought to overcome these failures by implementing broad institutional changes meant to revive the important moral aspect of ending worldwide poverty.
Today, over a billion people live in extreme poverty. That so many people do not know where their next meal will come from, or do not have access to basic health care, clean water, electricity, and other fundamental needs, should surely haunt each of us. Yet, these appalling circumstances have persisted for decades, even as IGOs, NGOs, and individual activists have worked to draw attention to the issue of extreme poverty. Reminders of what the world’s poor look like are pervasive throughout the media. For years, development agencies such as the World Bank have relied upon people’s moral desire to help as a method of raising funds. However, the World Bank has been inconsistent in its actions, resulting in much controversy. Now the organization, under Kim, seeks to re-engineer the moral clause as a critical pillar in its global agenda. This should pique the interest of anybody mindful of its history.
The World Bank has been portrayed, by some, as a major cause of poverty, partly due to the ineffectiveness of some of its policies . Together with programs put forth by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs of the 1990s are partly blamed for high debt and poverty in developing states. These programs required that participating countries significantly cut needed social programs, healthcare and educational services, and other development projects. Now faced with these unpleasant legacies of his organization’s reputation, Dr. Kim has aimed to make the World Bank a more client-driven organization. Additionally, the organization’s new leadership has placed greater emphasis on the moral importance of taking care of the world’s poor, which is a key image-building venture for the Bank. This new agenda is central to one of the institution’s first reorganizations in almost two decades.
Kim is rightly focused on getting the internal affairs of the organization working in order for it to more adequately meet its new goals. He conducted a survey of World Bank employees, revealing a “‘culture of fear,’ pervasive ‘fear of risk’ and a ‘terrible’ environment for collaboration” For now, Kim has become the moral conscience of an organization that has had a bad reputation of not working for the poor in developing countries, but rather working with the interests of wealthier states in mind. His message is encouraging: the speech at George Washington University was well delivered, powerfully evoking civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kim quoted Dr. King when he noted that our goals must be “transformed from thin paper to thick action,” and ended by invoking Dr. King’s affirmation that “the time is always ripe to do right.” Perhaps, as the relatively new leader of the World Bank, Kim has come to realize that the organization’s past sins necessitate the need to both internally and externally recreate a more morally engaging institution.
The vision of the World Bank’s new leadership will bring controversial changes. Already since Kim’s election, some high-level employees have left the organization, and additional layoffs are expected. Kim has indicated he may seek right “practices” directors from outside the Bank. Moving away from a past tarnished by ineffective and arguably harmful policies will help the World Bank revitalize its own image and will also renew the organization’s commitment to ending extreme poverty. By applying a strong sense of morality to its mission moving forward, the World Bank under Dr. Jim Yong Kim will be better equipped to reach its lofty goals. If anything, the World Bank is trying to shape its future by being more in tune to the people it was created to serve. In front of the World Bank’s headquarters is a banner that reads, “End Poverty,” projecting the institution’s new focus. All we can do for now is wait and see where the newfound focus on morality takes the World Bank, and how it will impact the lives of the world’s poor.