clock menu more-arrow no yes

The World Bank’s controversial president just resigned

Jim Yong Kim’s surprise departure comes after a rocky tenure.

Global Citizen - Movement Makers
Kim speaks at a Global Citizens event in New York in September.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Jim Yong Kim, who has served as president of the World Bank Group since 2012, has abruptly resigned, and will leave office on February 1, the World Bank announced in a statement.

Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian economist who last year became CEO of the World Bank’s lending groups, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the International Development Association (IDA), will serve as interim president.

Kim, who immigrated to the US from South Korea with his family at age 5, is a doctor and medical anthropologist by training, earning both his MD and PhD in anthropology at Harvard. As a medical student, he cofounded the global health nonprofit Partners In Health with Ophelia Dahl and Paul Farmer, the subject of the bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains. He spent much of his career as a professor at Harvard Medical School, and briefly served as president of Dartmouth College from 2009 to 2012 before leaving to head up the World Bank.

While the World Bank was founded to offer competitive loans to rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II, it has pivoted, especially since the tenure of James Wolfensohn (1995-2005) but arguably starting under Robert McNamara, to focus more on development and poverty alleviation in developing countries than on the large-scale infrastructure projects for which it was initially known.

That’s a transition that Kim’s selection exemplified: A global health professional would not have made sense as the bank’s leader in the early days. Its first presidents were Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer and bank/”wise man” John McCloy.

But it fit well with the shift to a broader focus on development. Kim, in a Silicon Valley-esque turn of phrase, spoke of wanting to turn the World Bank into a “solutions bank” whose role would be to provide “evidence-based, non-ideological solutions to development challenges.”

Kim retained the support of the US during his time as bank president, but reportedly his approach to the job earned the enmity of the bank’s staff, with morale extremely low as Kim launched a large reorganization initiative involving significant layoffs in some areas. In 2015, the discontent had reached such a level that there was open speculation Kim might resign, though he ultimately held on for nearly four more years.

World Bank presidents are elected in a formal selection process where different member states have different voting shares. But the United States, which has by far the largest vote share with 16 percent of total votes, has traditionally controlled the position, whereas the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is traditionally led by a European. Every World Bank president to date has been American, though Kim faced challenges in his 2012 election from Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Colombian economist José Antonio Campo before skating to reelection in 2016.

After leaving the bank, Kim says he will “join a firm and focus on increasing infrastructure investments in developing countries. The details of this new position will be announced shortly.” He will also serve as a senior fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and rejoin the board of Partners In Health.


Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.