- Issue: Winter 2013
On July 23, 2013, WWF President & CEO Carter Roberts and World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim sat down to talk about their vision for the future, making smart choices, and why it’s never too late to admit you’re wrong.
CARTER ROBERTS: You’ve been president of the World Bank for a year. By now you must have a good sense of what you want to accomplish during your five years in this job. What’s your legacy going to look like?
JIM YONG KIM: Well, I don’t know about legacy, but I’ll tell you what we’re trying to accomplish. First of all, for the first time in the Bank’s history, all 188 member countries have agreed on the goal of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
But none of our efforts are going to matter if we don’t tackle climate change. And so all the efforts we make around economic growth, and bringing people out of poverty, have to be taken in the context of what’s happening to the Earth right now.
So, the question is, how do you move forward with growing economies, making sure people are participating in that growth and doing it in a way that’s sustainable?
CR: It’s something WWF wrestles with every day. Our work initially focused on nature with an emphasis on the planet’s most iconic species. But of course humanity’s own future is ultimately at stake, and so people have to be part of the design process and part of the solution, too.
JYK: For example, if a country focuses on growing the economy and only a few people benefit, the countries that do that are going to be fundamentally unstable. We know that, right? So when we go into a country—any country—we can say to the government, “You can grow your economy, but you have to do it in a way that people participate, or else you’re going to be in trouble.” And there’s plenty of evidence around the world that tells us that.
CR: The trajectories of unsustainable trends affecting fisheries, watersheds and climate are accelerating so fast. It reminds us that we have to stop marginal activities and focus on the things that are consequential—that actually bend those trajectories toward a future that is more sustainable. If you could pick three things that you really want to get after, what would they be? And what’s the role of the Bank in getting them done?
JYK: Well, one is agriculture—reclaiming degraded lands, wheat varieties with deeper roots, the management of riverbanks.
Next would be sustainable energy. A lot of the barriers to developing countries actually using renewable sources of energy involve a lack of access to long-term financing. That’s where we come in.
And then I’d say we’re going to have to be involved in hydroelectric power. Of course we’ll be as nondisruptive to the natural environment as we possibly can be. But the negative impact of hydroelectric power is manageable, whereas putting the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases into the air…is an unmanageable problem.
CR: To me, it’s all about making smart choices. You know, there are better types of power you can choose, there are smarter types of infrastructure you can build. And it’s all a question of designing it right, and picking the option that has the least amount of impact and delivers what people need.
JYK: Yes, exactly.
CR: You’ve had an incredibly interesting career—from Partners In Health to Dartmouth College and now the World Bank Group. And you and I have talked about lessons learned from your health care work and what you guys did really well to tip the balance, and how we might apply those lessons to the environmental movement. So what advice would you give to the environmental movement right now?
JYK: I’ve had the great good fortune of being part of certain movements that, in the end, were successful. But when we started there was absolutely no sense that we could ever be successful.
For example, the effort to eradicate smallpox—probably one of the most important and revolutionary successes in the history of health, in general, but maybe even in an entire social sector. A disease was eradicated from the face of the Earth, something that’s never happened again. And it was done through management techniques. They set up a business-like production system, a quality-improvement circle, to eradicate smallpox. And the key wasn’t the vaccine—it was the management of the vaccine.
They had a plan that was as well-organized as the best business plans. Borrowing a phrase from the business world, they understood the entire value chain, and they attacked every step of the value chain.
CR: So smart. That’s what the environmental movement needs to do.
JYK: We need to understand what the actual value chain is, in order to come up with a solution that is equal to the problem. This is what I’m saying all the time. We do not have solutions that are equal to the problem of climate change.
CR: That’s a really interesting way to look at it. So, what are you most proud of?
JYK: That I still believe I can get better. And it’s a reminder to myself—I really believe that human beings can get better. So I’m always working to get better, and I’m hopeful I can continue to get better as a leader, as a parent.
CR: I completely agree. Continual improvement has to be a goal for all institutions and individuals if we want any hope of delivering a healthy planet for our grandchildren. So what about WWF? Where can we improve?
JYK: Well, to all the supporters of World Wildlife Fund, what I’d like to say is: I’m sorry. You were right, and I was wrong. And I say that for a very specific purpose: Folks at WWF have been committed to the environment, to biodiversity, to the survival of the species for much longer than I have cared about it. But you were right. It’s critically important, and what you are doing is so important for the planet.
So, thank you for what you’ve done. But now, I think the nature of the problem is such that many of your constituents are going to have to grow from gentle, kind, warm, environmentalists trying to do the right thing into a more vocal, insistent community that demands we address the situation.
CR: Polls show rising concern about environmental degradation and climate change, but diminished conviction something can be done about it. We need to change that. We need to engage people in taking specific actions that make a difference—after all, governments and businesses ultimately take their cues from their constituents and customers. It’s time we put the movement back in the environmental movement.
Jim, thanks for your time. The World Bank and WWF are great partners and I can’t think of a better person with whom to start this series in our new magazine.