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World Bank Group president responds to Rev. Jesse Jackson

In the September 17, 2014 issue of the Chicago Suntimes, President Kim wrote a letter to the editor to counter Reverend Jesse Jackson’s article titled “Apartheid Avenue Two Blocks from the White House.” That letter has since been removed from newspaper’s website. We republish it here.

Recently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a column that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times suggesting a lack of racial diversity at the World Bank Group, where I serve as its 12th president.

I deeply respect Rev. Jackson’s historic role and lifelong commitment to civil rights in America. He has dedicated himself to making sure that all Americans are afforded the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, and I take to heart his concerns regarding workplace discrimination. As an international organization committed to improving the lives of the poor around the world, the World Bank Group takes our commitment to diversity very seriously. And we know — like many governmental, business and academic institutions — we can and must do better.

In the 1960s, my parents, who were both refugees during the Korean War, emigrated to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Through hard work, perseverance and good fortune, we were able to carve out a life that justified the risks they took in coming here. But as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa, I was sometimes judged solely by my appearance, and at times strangers would make karate-chop gestures at me, inspired by the popular TV series “Kung Fu.” When I played quarterback for my high school football team, opponents were not above slamming me to the dirt and then piling on racial slurs.

These relatively minor incidents embarrassed me and made me self-conscious and, more important, they taught me something about the indignities many people around the world face solely because of their sex, age, race or sexual orientation. Fighting discrimination in this world is an urgent task.

If you had come to the World Bank 25 years ago, you would have seen an institution led by a group of white men. That is not the World Bank Group of today. Our staff now represents 170 different nationalities, each of whom expects to be treated with respect and dignity. Almost two-thirds of our employees come from developing countries, and some 15 percent are from Sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean countries. Among our managers, 40 percent hail from developing countries, 11 percent are from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, and half our top managers are women. Just five years ago, only nine of our directors were from Sub-Saharan Africa; now 24 directors are from that region.

We are truly a rainbow institution.

As a multilateral institution, we track our diversity by nationality. The rich tapestry of our diverse staff is no coincidence — it is a reflection of who we are and whom we serve. It is also built into the DNA of the organization, and we are accountable to our shareholders for ensuring we recruit “on as wide a geographical basis as possible,” as mandated in our Articles of Agreement.

In that context, we are working to boost the number of staff from developing countries, and the number of women. In the case of the United States, we have staff and managers from a variety of different backgrounds, including African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, as well as many naturalized Americans from around the world.

Wander our hallways, join a team meeting, linger in our cafeteria, and you will encounter an impressive range of backgrounds, perspectives and cultures. Those interactions are one of the most enriching aspects of leading this global institution. While we believe we are diverse, we must continually work to improve in this area.

Later this year, we will begin the roll-out of an ambitious action plan on diversity and inclusion that will bolster our efforts to both attract and retain the very best talent in development from around the world. It will include extra efforts to recruit from markets where we have thin representation. We will do so looking through a global lens while keeping a close eye on the inclusion of all minorities.

I will be personally monitoring our action plans to improve upon our record of diversity even further. Adopting and implementing a comprehensive diversity and inclusion agenda is not just a moral imperative, it is the mirror that makes good business sense for our clients. This is what a world-class global institution demands, and this is what we must strive to deliver.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King said, “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability... We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” Eliminating discrimination is the right thing to do, and I will use my time as president of the World Bank Group to ensure all of our employees are treated equally and can fulfill their ambitions within our organization. If we hope to achieve our ultimate goal — ending extreme poverty by 2030 — we must harness the full potential of all of us.

* Dr. Jim Yong Kim is President of the World Bank Group.