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It’s a Monday morning in early August, and nearly 50 heads of state have descended on Washington for the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. For World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, that means a whirlwind agenda. African countries are among the most important clients of the development bank as it seeks to fulfill its goal of ending global poverty, and Kim is determined to meet with as many presidents, prime ministers and other senior officials as he can. He’s also agreed to explain to me what the “science of delivery” is and why it holds the key to the Bank’s future.

Kicking off a meeting at World Bank headquarters with ministers from more than three dozen African countries, Kim says the Bank stands ready to finance infrastructure projects and promote regional trade initiatives to foster growth on the continent. After 30 minutes he ducks out, and his aides whisk me down to the Bank’s basement parking garage, where I rejoin Kim in his black GMC Denali — that conspicuous vehicle that signals “Washington VIP.” On the crosstown drive to an African energy conference sponsored by the Economist and General Electric Co., Kim explains his optimism about the Bank’s future. Yes, private capital flows swamp the Bank’s resources, and the BRICS nations have agreed to launch a development bank that could be a potent rival to his institution, but countries — including such growing powers as China and India — remain eager to work with the World Bank because of the breadth of its global experience. Two weeks earlier, he recalls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told him at a meeting in New Delhi that he wanted the World Bank to be his “information bank,” helping India to extend education and improve the skills and productivity of its workforce.

After arriving at Washington’s Newseum, Kim works the GE event briskly. Joining a panel session on power, he speaks passionately about the need to extend electricity to the 600 million Africans who now live off the grid, calling the continent’s meager generating capacity a crime. He gives shout-outs to some of the power brokers at the event, including Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (one former rival for the Bank presidency) and Ashish Thakkar, founder and CEO of pan-Africa conglomerate Mara Group. He sits for a television interview to outline the Bank’s lending priorities in Africa. Then it’s back into the Denali for the ride back to World Bank headquarters, and without prompting or skipping a beat, Kim picks up our previous conversation right where we left off one hour earlier.

“I have done development work for 25 years,” he says. “What I have learned is it’s never just about the money. The money is really, really critical, but it has never actually been the problem. What’s actually the problem is having enough very specific know-how to actually get results on the ground.”

It’s not surprising that Kim stresses on-the-ground know-how. As a Harvard-educated MD with a Ph.D. in anthropology, he has plenty of smarts. He spent more than two decades launching innovative health care projects from Peru to Rwanda. What is surprising is that he’s leading the World Bank. Since its establishment in 1944 as a bedrock of the postwar Bretton Woods financial system, the development lender had known only bankers, business executives and politicians for bosses. And Kim was not exactly a fan.

As a health care activist in the early 1990s, he took a dim view of the so-called Washington consensus. He and his colleagues in Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit, pioneered ways to provide low-cost community-based health care in desperately poor countries. Kim deplored the structural adjustment policies promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which often ended up cutting public health subsidies in favor of reducing budget deficits, servicing debt and promoting privatization. During the 1995 annual meetings of the Bank and the IMF, Kim took part in a teach-in organized by 50 Years Is Enough, a movement that was campaigning for the two institutions to be radically transformed — or abolished. As Kim and his co-authors would later write in their book Dying for Growth, “the poor in Latin America are being enlisted to help make up budget shortfalls they did nothing to cause, so that debt they did nothing to incur can be repaid endlessly.”

Today, Kim is trying to lead a revolution from the inside. Since taking over the leadership of the World Bank in July 2012 following his surprise nomination by President Barack Obama, he has redefined the organization’s mission in simple but stark terms: ending extreme poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity by lifting the incomes of the bottom 40 percent of the population. To achieve those ends, Kim has over the past year carried out the biggest reorganization of the Bank’s sprawling bureaucracy in nearly 20 years, taking a sharp knife to costs and appointing a cadre of senior executives to head up 15 new global practices in areas such as education, the environment and natural resources, and finance and markets. He’s also staked out a big role for the World Bank in efforts to combat climate change, arguing that unchecked increases in global temperatures would hit the poor hardest. The new structure and goals, he insists, will sharpen the Bank’s ability to distill the best development lessons from around the world and deliver that knowledge — and money — to developing countries.

For Kim this is the World Bank’s Piketty moment. French economist Thomas Piketty, whom Kim loves to quote, has put a global spotlight on inequality with his bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. To seize the moment, Kim says, the World Bank must show it can deliver practical solutions — from building roads and power plants to overhauling social welfare and educational systems — that will help poor countries become more prosperous.

“Are there ways of spurring economic growth in a way that is more inclusive? I have not met a single head of state or minister of finance who is not concerned about that,” he tells me. “This is a critical moment for us. We would not be able to play that role in moving the world toward growth with convergence, growth with inclusion, if we were not dealing with global knowledge in every single country.”

CAN KIM’S BANK RISE TO THE CHALLENGE? No one doubts his passion and commitment, but skeptics both inside and outside the Bank question his methods. Consider the reorganization. The idea of bringing the best global knowledge to bear on particular countries’ development problems is not exactly new. Previous presidents have cited the same goal — in fact, it’s practically the raison d’être of the world’s largest development agency, with a presence in more countries than any other and an annual budget of more than $60 billion. It remains to be seen whether Kim’s global practices will provide better service to member countries than previous setups did. In 1987 then-president Barber Conable Jr. reorganized the Bank along sector lines such as transportation and power. A decade later James Wolfensohn tore up the org chart, sending hundreds of staff from headquarters out into the field and empowering country directors as his praetorian guard, all in the name of making the Bank more responsive to its clients.

Global issues increasingly dominate the development agenda, ranging from the challenges of climate change to fighting criminality and health epidemics like the recent Ebola outbreak to the increasing ability of international capital to evade national tax regimes, says Nancy Birdsall, president of the Washington-based Center for Global Development and a former World Bank staffer. But, she adds, making things happen on the ground requires detailed local knowledge of the politics and legal structures of individual countries: “You’ve got to understand what’s happening in Morocco and how that’s different from what’s happening in Peru.”

Kim’s reorganization dealt a blow to staff morale and prompted the departures of a number of senior executives, including managing director Caroline Anstey and head of change management Pamela Cox. Kim brought in consultants from McKinsey & Co. to advise on the restructuring and made four dozen senior executives apply for new jobs as part of the almost yearlong process. The staff association complained about a lack of consultation over the changes, and African members of the board of governors criticized the absence of African appointees among the new global practices heads.

“I’m not convinced it’s an ideal solution,” says one Bank insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. Too much is riding on a handful of managers, including the new global practices chiefs, this person says: “Their qualifications and track record do not convince everybody that they are up to the task.”

To be sure, any reshuffling of an organization as sprawling as the World Bank, with its 15,000 highly educated and well-compensated staff, was bound to stir up trouble. Wolfensohn’s changes generated howls of complaints and disrupted the Bank’s activities for a year, but most World Bankers look back on his tenure, from 1995 to 2005, as arguably the institution’s high point for elevating the problems of corruption, pushing for debt reduction and reaching out to nongovernmental organizations. Kim told his board to expect some “noise,” as he puts it, about the changes, and he points out that the Bank managed to increase its volume of lending, equity investments and investment guarantees by nearly 16 percent in the financial year ended June 30, to $61 billion. So far, the board remains supportive. “If there was no criticism, there was no change,” says Frank Heemskerk, the Dutch executive director of the Bank.

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