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‘Preferential option for the poor’ at the World Bank?

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On April 6, in the chapel hall of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim shared insights on the moral foundations that guide his personal philosophy and work to end poverty. The setting had special significance for Kim, whose mother studied philosophy there in the 1950s with theologians Paul Tillich and Rienhold Niebuhr.
Kim spoke about the influence that liberation theologian and Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino has had on him. Sobrino, a Spaniard, lived and worked in El Salvador and was the only surviving housemate of the six Jesuits killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter during the Salvadoran civil war in 1989.

The brutal murders and Sobrino’s philosophy of mercy — which intensified after the killings — deeply affected and influenced Kim. He quoted sentiments he shares from Sobrino’s 1994 book, “The Principle of Mercy”:
“We are not speaking here of ‘works of mercy’ but rather of the basic structure of the response to this world’s victims. This consists in making someone else’s pain our very own and allowing that pain to move us to respond. …The danger is that it may seem to denote a sheer sentiment without a praxis to accompany it.” The term “praxis” — which means practical application of a theory — was used often by liberation theologians like Sobrino to describe ways of turning theological concepts into action.
Kim continued, connecting the dots between numerous influential experiences in his life, in particular his work starting in 1987 when he and Paul Farmer founded Partners In Health. Working as doctors amid “gut-wrenching” poverty in Haiti led them, he said, to espouse a central concept from Catholic social teaching: a “preferential option for the poor.”
Not a preferential option for “my poor,” Kim explained — “not your own ideas, your own efficacy … your own heroism or political philosophy” — but “the poor,” what they need. What that meant concretely, for their work in public health in Haiti and other poor areas, was something he and Farmer debated often, Kim said.
For me, a Catholic and firm believer in interfaith dialogue, it was edifying to hear Kim, who is not Catholic, speak openly to an interfaith audience about how the Catholic Church’s social teaching influenced him. But as someone who now works for the Bank and who, like Kim, once protested its existence based on a similar desire to stand with the poor, Kim’s words and presence at the seminary struck me in two ways.
First, they seemed to provide figurative evidence of a page that has turned for good.
The World Bank, as Kim explained in his talk, is no longer laser-focused on solely GDP growth or on “structurally readjusting” economies — what we protested against in the 1990s. Instead, a sense of human dignity — a closer connection with poor people — sits more firmly and more visibly, at the center of the institution’s work. The World Bank promotes long-term investments in health and education for people, because people make up the economies which, in turn, serve people through jobs and income.
It strives with countries to mitigate the negative effects that pursuing development may have on individuals, indigenous peoples, climate, gender equality, and the environment. It works with countries and the United Nations to alleviate the effects of humanitarian crises and conflicts on the poor, because it is they who suffer the most and their chances for better lives that are stolen.
That Kim, a former activist doctor who quotes liberation theologians, now directs the institution to “utilize the tools of the wealthy [i.e., finance] to serve the poor,” as he said in his New York City lecture, is a positive development I could not have imagined 20 years ago while protesting against the Bank.
Second, I take heart in the Bank’s re-engagement with faith-based organizations, which was publicly highlighted in this event. For me, that engagement speaks to the institution’s stance that development is complex. This is a stance I appreciate more as I get older and understand better the complexity of all issues, whether personal, political, economic or social.
Indeed, a Bank-supported “moral imperative to end poverty” together with faith communities, can exist inside the World Bank along with academic, evidenced-based approaches to development. This is because the issues at hand are — as human beings are also — fraught and complex. They require numerous approaches and many partners to resolve. And nothing is so cut-and-dried. We know for example, as Kim said at the event, that one poor country’s bid for development in the form of cheaper, coal-fired electrical energy is another country’s climate nightmare.
How to work through these problems? Analysis, dialogue, consensus, and trade-offs, none of which are easy, simple or provide pat answers. This is the stuff of our work at the World Bank. There are many ways to work for the poor, and I believe working through this complexity is one of them.
Perhaps then, it is a kind of “praxis” that Father Jon Sobrino wrote about. A praxis to accompany mercy.


Dani Clark

Senior External Affairs Officer, Human Development

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