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Memo to World Bank: Good Health Policy Is Great Economic Policy

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It's a week of showdowns. In New Orleans, the Final Four kicks off, featuring a historic matchup between two powerhouses from the Bluegrass State. In Wisconsin and on to his home state of Pennsylvania, Santorum prepares for another primary despite growing weariness from much of the GOP. And, in D.C., the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Obamacare.

Amid these face-offs, though, the groundwork has been laid for a couple extraordinary partnerships. As Obama's presidential legacy hangs in the balance over his healthcare bill, he taps a health policy expert to head the World Bank. Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of Dartmouth University, is a revealing choice. A veteran leader from the HIV/AIDS movement, Dr. Kim has a resume that proves he can mobilize various stakeholders around a health issue.

Yet, despite this success, the critics have come out in masses, arguing that Dr. Kim is "anti-growth" and lacks the economic acumen for the position. While these criticisms may have some merit, they fail to recognize the larger point: as we transition into an unprecedented demographic transformation with more people over 60 than under 15, good economic policy requires good health policy. And, as a corollary, the reverse is equally true. Good health policy is great economic policy.

Thus, as the World Bank lays out its plans to stimulate growth in the coming years, Dr. Kim may be exactly what is needed -− a health-field veteran who can rightfully prioritize healthy aging. With lives extending three decades past traditional retirement age, health and economic policy can no longer be seen as separate enterprises. Congressman Paul Ryan's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes the point.

This partnership, though, is only the first step. It is a tremendous first step, to be sure, but it needs to be a sign of momentum, not an end in and of itself. The World Bank must now find strategic partnerships to drive the idea healthy aging will stimulate economic growth.

One ideal partner is HelpAge International, an organization that works with older adults around to world to live healthy lives by overcoming poverty and discrimination. Winner of this year's Hilton Humanitarian Prize, HelpAge has a remarkable track-record of charitable, compassionate service to the world's less fortunate. And, no less, they have demonstrated a persistent belief that the older adults still have much to contribute to society. As the Hilton Foundation's CEO said when bestowing the award upon HelpAge: "As the world prepares for the monumental aging demographic shift, HelpAge is showing us that it is important to recognise and support older people so they can continue to be contributing and productive members of society." In other words, aging populations are economic growth drivers, and health is the centerpiece of this equation.

At the heart of the HelpAge philosophy is the idea that older adults maintain ownership of their lives, their rights, and their health. Consider the following testimony from Mama Teresa, a 68-year-old Kenyan farmer:

In 2008, I joined the Older Citizens Monitoring Group set up by HelpAge International's Affiliate KESPA, to monitor how healthcare officials were treating older people. If you go to the hospital, they don't welcome us properly. You stay there so long, sitting on benches, four to five hours without being seen because you are old. Because of our group's work, they now attend to older people as soon as they see us sitting there. But there is still much more to do.

Implicit in and underlying this philosophy is a self-responsibility that lies against the 20th century social welfare models that are proving unsustainable with 21st century demographics. Here, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and even the World Bank can learn from Mama Teresa and HelpAge. 21st century economic sustainability requires individual responsibility, economic participation, and commitment to healthy aging.

This is a lesson that Dr. Jim Yong Kim understands very well, and it's an auspicious pairing now that he could be heading the World Bank. Dr. Kim has been criticized for his attitudes towards growth, but fundamental to 21st century economic growth is healthy aging. And that's something that Dr. Kim knows a bit about.

Now, Dr. Kim needs to look to HelpAge and other NGOs that, however implicitly, have the same agenda as the World Bank: to stimulate health and growth in all regions around the globe. If Dr. Kim can unite health and economic policy to drive growth, then the showdowns dominating this week's headlines will become yesterday's news. Unless, of course, Louisville upsets the Wildcats. That, certainly, won't be forgotten in Kentucky any time soon.