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Obama's pick for World Bank: an unconventional health specialist who defies expectations
WASHINGTON (AP) ' President Barack Obama's choice to lead the World Bank isn't the usual politician, lawyer or economist.
Jim Yong Kim, the White House's surprise nominee, is an educator, a doctor and an anthropologist who has waged a sometimes audacious campaign to improve the health of the world's poorest.
In the 1990s, defying skeptics, he found a cost-effective way to fight tuberculosis in the slums of South America. And he began a program to treat millions of Africans for HIV, that virus that causes AIDS.
Since 2009, the Korean-born Kim, 52, has been president of Dartmouth College.
"He's an outstanding choice," Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist who had been lobbying on his own behalf for the World Bank post, said in an interview.
"For the first time in the bank's history, it will have a president whose life mission is what the bank aims for: the elimination of poverty ... It's a brash decision which breaks the standard practice of going with a banker or a political insider."
The 68-year-old World Bank has always been led by an American. Developing countries, frustrated with the U.S. stranglehold on the bank's leadership, had planned to push candidates of their own this year to replace the outgoing president, Robert Zoellick.
But Obama's choice of Kim, with his foreign roots and years of experience fighting disease in poor countries, could neutralize any opposition among developing nations to another American. In fact, Rwandan President Paul Kagame quickly praised Kim's nomination, him "a true friend of Africa" and "a leader who knows what it takes to address poverty."
Born in Seoul, Kim moved to the United States with his family at age 5. He grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, where he was a high school quarterback and point guard. He's still an accomplished athlete. In announcing Kim's nomination, Obama quipped, "I just found out he is a five handicap in golf. I'm a little resentful of that last item."
After graduating from Brown University, Kim received a medical degree from Harvard University. In 1987, he co-founded the global health organization Partners in Health with his Harvard Medical School classmate Paul Farmer and others.
Together, they worked to try to combat disease in Haiti and other impoverished countries.
Kim achieved one of his biggest breakthroughs in Lima, Peru, in the mid-1990s.
There, slum dwellers were suffering from forms of tuberculosis that were resistant to the most widely available drugs. The drugs that could help them were highly expensive. Experts at the World Health Organization feared that the drugs might be mishandled if they were brought to Lima and possibly give rise to even more resistant forms of TB.
But Kim managed to get generic drug makers to start making the anti-TB drugs, driving down the price by as much as 95 percent. And he showed that the drugs could be distributed carefully.
Kim is known for a never-say-never approach to problem-solving. When he and Farmer were applying for a grant for health programs from the Gates Foundation, Farmer wanted to seek perhaps $4 million. Kim suggested they seek $45 million. They did. And they got it.
"People think we're unrealistic," he liked to say. "They don't know we're crazy."
In 2004, he took charge of the WHO's HIV program. At the time, patients in rich countries could afford treatments; those in poor countries couldn't.
Kim came up with an unconventional solution: ramping up production of anti-HIV drugs so much it would drive prices down. He wanted to treat 3 million Africans by 2005 ' his 3-by-5 program. The program worked. Now, 7 million African patients have been treated.
"Jim had the boldness and vision to say: It can be done," says Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard's School of Public Health. "This is not a typical WHO bureaucrat."
After leaving the WHO, Kim returned to Harvard, where he ran the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. Along the way, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and was named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" in 2006. Three years later, he became Dartmouth's president.
Harvard's Frenk says Kim is an inspired choice for the World Bank as it moves from focusing on making loans for big dam and road projects in poor countries to offering technical expertise to help them arise from poverty.
Tracy Kidder, whose 2003 book "Mountains Beyond Mountains" tells the story of Partners in Health, says Kim has charisma and a wicked sense of humor. The evidence is online, where a video shows Kim wearing a white leather spaceman outfit, dancing the "Robot" dance and rapping for a "Dartmouth Idol" competition.
"This is an extraordinary appointment," Kidder says. "I can't help but think the world will be better for it. God knows, he'll shake things up."
"He's walked the villages, the slums, the prison systems," Sachs says. "Governments around the world will be very thankful for this. I don't think they wanted another politician. They wanted a development leader, and now they have one."
AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger and Associated Press Writers Holly Ramer in Dartmouth, N.H., and Kathy McCormack in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.