04/25/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Why Everyone Should Celebrate Jim Yong Kim's Election as President of the World Bank

Was it too much to hope that the historic election of Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank would command more ongoing public and media discussion in the past week than the antics of Secret Service agents with Colombian prostitutes? As one who studies and writes on public health challenges, I am surprised and disappointed about the lack of attention paid to the importance of this event. There are many reasons to examine what Dr. Kim's leadership of this venerable global poverty fighting institution means for our understanding of how promoting health can be a foundation for individual and national development and security.

First, however, let's shift the narrative from complaints about American dominance of the World Bank's presidency, the contested election, and Dr. Kim's lack of banker credentials. These were newsworthy developments, but the story is not over -- it is just beginning. The contestation forced voting nations and the general public to contemplate what it means for the World Bank to be led by an individual who has fought deadly diseases, founded a global health delivery system, and waged a combined campaign for improved health and social justice.

Rather than a story of America pride about the ascension of another of its citizens to this high position, let us speak of this as a moment for Americans to recognize what Dr. Kim's work teaches us -- economic health depends upon healthy people and healthy communities. Significantly, health is not only, and in many cases, not primarily, about medical care, but about attending to the health needs of a community's population. Disease prevention -- including clean water and air, nutritious food, sanitation, and vaccination -- is far more cost effective than waiting to treat those who get sick. At the same time, recovery from illness frequently depends upon educating patients and families to participate in their own and their relative's care.

Moreover, as our political discourse degenerates into attacks on women's roles in society, let us not lose sight of how economic health requires investing in women. Development economist Jeffrey Sachs has noted that if he had one dollar to spend where it would do the most good, he would invest it in educating girls. Imagine a world where women have the knowledge and resources to provide a healthy environment for their families, where they could develop and market their skills and establish businesses that serves the needs of their neighbors, where they have access to prenatal care and can make their own informed choices about family planning. Dr. Kim's accomplishments affirm that he understands investment in health is built upon respecting and meeting the needs of individuals, communities, and countries, which can, in turn, yield extremely productive returns.

Dr. Kim's election holds promise not only for the developing world. Americans take note: This is an optimal moment for us to examine our own commitment to and investment in public health. As the Supreme Court deliberates whether Congress will be permitted to extend health care insurance to 40 million Americans, it is troubling to note that legislators would only agree to extend tax cuts for the middle class by cutting $5 billion from public health funding. Thus, just as we hope that the World Bank will look favorably on supporting health-promoting development projects, so too should Americans press our government to invest in our nation's public health.

In a report published last week, the prestigious Institute of Medicine again documented what it called America's "lackluster health outcomes" and our poor performance in life expectancy and other health indicators compared to other high-income nations. The IOM reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that our failure to invest in population-based prevention strategies, including the revitalization of chronically underfunded public health departments, "continues to take a growing toll on the economy and society."

Years ago, Dr. Kim joined Dr. Paul Farmer, a noted humanitarian and MacArthur "genius" prize winner, in founding "Partners in Health," an organization that works in the world's poorest countries to develop a community-based approach to providing health care, preventing disease, and fighting poverty. We in the world's richest country need to embrace the partnership concept. We can mobilize public and private sector health professionals and businesses, train community workers, and convene partners in every discipline and interest group to join in a shared venture of building an efficient and sustainable public health enterprise. And we must do so for the sake of our collective well-being and our capacity to respond to health emergencies that threaten our nation's security.

So let everyone celebrate Dr. Kim's election as president of the World Bank for the promise that it holds for investing in programs with the potential to transform people's lives. And let us Americans follow his example and join in a shared enterprise to improve the lives of our fellow citizens.

Leslie Gerwin is Associate Director, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University and an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law where she teaches public health law and policy.