‘Our Objective Is Not to Slow the Flow of Refugees’ – World Bank Chief

As the World Bank steps up its involvement in response to the global refugee crisis, its president, Jim Yong Kim, tells Refugees Deeply why a development institution wants to involve itself in forced migration.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, speaks during a summit addressing the large movement of refugees and migrants. AP/Julie Jacobson

Away from negotiation of declarations and compacts, one of the notable features of the refugee summits in New York has been the emergence of new players in the field of forced migration.

The largest and most powerful of these is the World Bank. As an increasing number of experts call for development institutions to play a greater role in cushioning the shocks of large-scale movements of people, the bank has become more involved with refugees.

Jim Yong Kim is expected to be confirmed for a second five-year spell at the helm of the World Bank, despite a 2011 pledge that the post would be opened up to a non-American at the end of his term next June. The former physician has overseen an ambitious and often contentious restructuring of the institution since taking over in 2012. His desire for a second term has been opposed by the bank’s own staff association.

His first term has been dominated by an effort to steer the bank away from its geographical organization toward one based on areas of expertise. This shift has coincided with a larger proportion of global development aid being spent on refugees in recent years.

The 56-year-old Korean-American has spoken often of wanting to take the bank into new areas away from its core business of financing major development projects. His insistence on innovation is in keeping with a varied background that has included being the dean of a liberal arts university and a public health activist.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as a founder of the Partners in Health community-based organization in Haiti, he challenged the World Health Organization (WHO) over its treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis, on the grounds that it was too costly to be effective in poorer countries. The group’s success persuaded the WHO to later hire him for its successful HIV-Aids program.

Refugees Deeply: How does the World Bank see its role in addressing the current levels of forced migration and how has this role changed recently?

Jim Yong Kim: Forced displacement is a crisis centered in the developing world. For the World Bank Group, it is a significant challenge as we work to end extreme poverty and to boost shared prosperity. The extreme poor are increasingly concentrated among the most vulnerable, including the forcibly displaced. It also affects the host communities’ development prospects as almost 90 percent of refugees live in developing countries.

In addition, large movements of people are fueling xenophobic reactions, which is a great concern. It is imperative to help the forcibly displaced overcome their vulnerabilities and support host communities to manage the shock they are experiencing.

Refugees Deeply: What does this look like in terms of on-the-ground interventions?

Kim: As we rethink forced displacement as a development issue, we will continue to innovate on the ground. First, we are building on our already strong partnership with UNHCR, including improving our data collection and analysis on forced displacement with them. Second, we will work with our partners to mobilize the significant resources needed for both low- and middle-income countries hosting refugees. Third, we will continue and expand our operational and analytical work, building on projects in the Great Lakes region and the poverty analysis on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

And finally, we will explore ways to engage earlier, helping countries prepare for displacement. As our research points out, the majority of those affected are displaced for less than four years, which means we have an opportunity early on in many countries to help manage the crisis.

Refugees Deeply: Can development assistance really play a role in slowing refugee flows?

An Afghan girl counts in Greek the numbers on the wall during a lesson at a refugee camp in Athens. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

An Afghan girl counts in Greek the numbers on the wall during a lesson at a refugee camp in Athens. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Kim: Our objective as a development institution in the short term is not to slow the flow of refugees; people fleeing violence and conflict must be allowed to escape these terrible circumstances. The role of those of us working in development is to help both the forcibly displaced and host communities reduce the negative development impacts of these crises.

Over the course of their ordeal, those who are displaced have often experienced an immense loss of assets and trauma, which makes them vulnerable in specific ways. The World Bank Group and other development institutions can help them rebuild their lives by creating jobs, making sure everyone has access to health services and educating children. Otherwise, those who have fled their homes may have to move to another place, which upends their lives once again.

At the same time, those of us who work in development must help host communities. The inflow of refugees can cause a shock and exacerbate long-standing development issues, which can create tensions in communities. So our efforts can never just focus on the people who fled their homes. We also have to help their hosts.

In the long term, we are expanding our work in fragile and conflict-affected areas to address the drivers of conflict and create more stable societies that provide opportunities for all – so that people will not need to flee, risking their lives, in the first place.

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