World Bank chief tells Stanford audience that ending extreme poverty is possible

World Bank leader Jim Yong Kim spoke at Stanford last Thursday, urging students and faculty to continue their efforts to eliminate poverty and improve public health globally.

Stanford students belong to the first generation that could witness the end of extreme global poverty – in what would be one of humankind's greatest achievements – the head of the World Bank said during an Oct. 29 talk on campus.

L.A. CiceroJim Yong Kim, World Bank leader

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, speaks at last week's conference of the Stanford Global Development and Poverty Initiative.

But their generation, he said, is also likely to experience the first global pandemic since the 1918 influenza that killed more than 50 million people.

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, said innovations in health, education and finance are behind the World Bank's twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity for the bottom 40 percent of the global population.

Speaking at the inaugural conference of the Stanford Global Development and Poverty Initiative, Kim lauded faculty and students for their multidisciplinary approach in tackling poverty and improving public health. He is an infectious disease physician who oversaw World Health Organization initiatives on HIV/AIDS.

"Seeking transformative solutions to challenges of development and poverty that are necessarily cross-disciplinary is exactly what a great university should be doing," Kim said in his speech at Stanford.

The World Bank announced last month that the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day is expected to drop to 9.6 percent of the global population by the end of the year. That is down from 36 percent in 1990.

The bank has pledged to cut that rate to 3 percent by 2030.

"We expect the extreme poverty rate to drop below 10 percent for the first time in human history," he said. "This is the best news in the world today. And this is the first generation in human history that has been able to see that potential outcome."

Promoting prosperity

One of the co-founders of Partners in Health, Kim was the keynote speaker at the daylong conference, "Shared Prosperity and Health," which drew together Stanford faculty and researchers, plus government and NGO officials from around the world.

Stanford's global development and poverty effort is a university-wide initiative of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, known as SEED, and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The conference was held at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, which was a partner in the event.

Kim's talk was optimistic about the newly adopted U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, with an ambitious agenda to end poverty and hunger, ensure healthy lives, empower women and girls and attain quality education for all children by 2030.

While those goals seem lofty, Kim pointed to the accomplishment of bringing down extreme poverty to 10 percent, a figure many had once said was impossible.

Ninety-one percent of children in developing countries now attend primary school, up from 83 percent in 2000, he said. And the number of people on antiretroviral drugs for treatment of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa has increased eightfold in the last decade.

"But we're humbled by the challenges ahead," Kim said. "Rising global temperatures will have devastating impacts on poor countries and poor people – and, as we saw with Ebola, major pandemics are likely to disproportionately affect the poor."

Pandemic threats

Kim said that most virologists and infectious disease experts are certain a pandemic will sweep the world in the next 30 years. He said that would lead to more than 30 million deaths and anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of lost GDP.

He blasted the global community for taking eight months to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, noting that Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had among the fastest growing economies in Africa before the outbreak killed more than 11,000 people – most of whom were poor.

In an effort to speed up financial aid the next time such an outbreak occurs, the World Bank is developing the Pandemic Emergency Facility, which would disburse funding immediately to national governments and responding agencies.

Rajiv Shah, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2010-2015, spoke earlier at the conference about his work leading the U.S. efforts to contain Ebola.

"Three small countries with total population of maybe 30 million people had such weak health systems with so little domestic investment – in one country $6 per capita health investment per year – that when Ebola became a crisis there was no first-line of defense," he said.

By October 2014, the United States was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into containment efforts, he said, including the establishment of a 2,500-personnel military deployment to hit Ebola at its source. He said President Obama "stayed extraordinarily true to the science" of containment at the source.

Stunted children

Moving beyond containment of epidemics, Kim said the most important investment developing countries could make in their people starts when a woman becomes pregnant. Using a combination of health, nutrition and education will have lifelong benefits for each child, as well as for the country in which each prospers.

The World Bank estimates that 26 percent of all children under age 5 in developing countries are stunted, which means they are malnourished and under-stimulated, risking a loss of cognitive abilities that lasts a lifetime. The number climbs to 36 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, giving those children limited prospects in life.

"This is a disgrace, a global scandal and, in my view, akin to a medical emergency," Kim said. "Children who are stunted by age 5 will not have an equal opportunity in life. If your brain won't let you learn and adapt in a fast-changing world, you won't prosper and, neither will society. All of us lose."

From 2001 to 2013, the World Bank invested $3.3 billion in early childhood development programs in poor countries. Kim said innovative policymaking and financial tools allowed the bank to help Peru cut its rate of child stunting in half to 14 percent in just eight years.

"Progress is possible – and it can happen quickly. But we must do even more,"he said.

Kim said the world set a target in 2012 to reduce stunting in children by 40 percent. But that would still leave 100 million children malnourished and undereducated. The bank and world leaders should pledge to end stunting for all children by 2030, he said.

"With partners like the Global Development and Poverty Initiative and the entire Stanford community, I'm full of hope that we can indeed be the first generation in human history to end extreme poverty and create a more just and prosperous world for everyone on the planet."