World Bank meetings and world bank reforms – Deja Vu

After my nearly 30 years of observation inside and outside the World Bank a critical factor in  meaningful reform is the way the Bank’s  Presidents are selected. For those who don’t know, they are chosen by the President of the US, under an agreement with the shareholder nations, and since the Bank’s foundation in 1944 they have all been US nationals.  Many (e.g. Zoellick, Wolfowitz, Wolfensohn) have taken the job as  part of a career at the top of the Washington political establishment and since their next hoped-for appointment might well require approval of  the US Congress which thinks the Bank needs permanent reengineering if not close-down they are obliged to don the mantle of persons-of-action, whether they like it or not,  making  visible, sweeping  changes in the “pin-stripe bureaucracy”, supported by new sound bytes about ending poverty etc, after which they have to declare victory – all within the short, five years before they are reappointed or move on.  All in all, they have to be quick change artists.  Well folks, this may sound excessively cynical but the fact is that the solutions to the Bank’s problems are long term, not short term. No amount of showmanship, moving the boxes around and cutting the alleged fat will per se do what is needed, and past experience suggests it will lead to further dysfunction. What can be achieved by replacing ‘global networks’ (old) with ‘global practices’ (new)? Nothing. Trust me – the solution involves a broad re-thinking of what the Bank should be doing in the 21st Century and a reorganization to perform that role (like the change of direction made by Robert McNamara).  That’s a big deal –  and it almost certainly means changing the focus to ‘global public goods’ – climate, environment,  health, economic stability, infrastructure etc. It  means specializing, and dropping its current practice of rushing into every country and sector to be the ‘lead agency’ regardless of its competence or ability to deliver results, and it also means abandoning a lot of country-centered work (changing its sovereign lending model). That’s definitely long term stuff.  But its essential. Please read my book “Reforming the World Bank – 20 years of Trial — and Error” (Cambridge University Press).

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