By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Korean-American physician Jim Yong Kim took the reins of the poverty-fighting World Bank on Monday and pledged to protect developing countries at a pivotal moment for a world economy that appears to be losing steam rapidly.
Kim, former head of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, takes the presidency at a time the euro zone debt crisis is beginning to exact a wider global toll.
Growth is slowing in emerging economies from China to India to Brazil, with developing countries feeling the effects of tighter bank lending and a drop in trade financing - problems Kim will have to address as the head of the world's top development lender.
"I am both humbled and inspired to take over today as president," Kim told reporters before he entered the World Bank's headquarters just blocks away from the White House.
Kim's nomination for the job by the Obama administration was challenged by candidates from developing countries. It was the first time in the World Bank's history that the U.S. hold on the job was challenged by nations who want an opportunity to lead the institution.
Unlike previous heads of the World Bank, Kim is not a politician, banker or career diplomat. Instead, his life work has focused on bringing healthcare to the poor, whether fighting tuberculosis in Haiti and Peru or tackling HIV/AIDS in Russian prisons.
In an email reaching out to the World Bank's staff, Kim said his priority was to intensify the bank's efforts to help developing countries protect growth and jobs.
"The global economy remains vulnerable," Kim said in the email. "The Bank Group stands ready to support countries as they design and implement longer-range strategies for sustainable, inclusive growth."
Kim said no other organization could combine on-the-ground experience, knowledge and analysis to tackle its main mission of eradicating poverty.
As Europe struggles to get a handle on its crisis, new manufacturing data in China, the world's second-largest economy, on Monday showed a further decline in export orders.
Slowing global growth will affect already scarce government revenues in the poorest countries, which could force them to turn to the World Bank for more financial assistance.
World Bank assistance to middle-income countries could also increase if many find themselves unable to obtain the financing they need in the market.
Kim's predecessor at the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, stepped up lending to developing countries in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis and record food and oil prices that prompted social unrest in parts of Africa.
(Editing by Will Dunham)