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A pivotal moment in the World Bank's history

Peter Stephens's picture

These Spring Meetings will probably be remembered for the capital increase – the first in 20 years – and the historic changes to the voice and representation of developing countries within the Bank. They are important milestones, and deserve to be recognized. But something much more profound is happening within the Bank, something that historians will look back on and regard as a pivotal moment in the organization’s evolution.

The key to understanding what is underway is Mr. Zoellick’s speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center on April 14. This was probably the most important speech by a Bank president since McNamara’s Nairobi speech of 1973 – even more important, I would argue, than Mr. Wolfensohn’s 1996 speech on corruption.  For the first time in many years, the Bank is at the leading edge of thinking about global trends. Mr. Zoellick’s blunt declaration that the era of the Third World is over and a new, more complex arrangement is emerging, challenges everyone at the Bank and everyone working in development to think and act differently. It sets in context why the reforms underway across many areas of the Bank are really necessary, why we need a new approach to investment lending, to knowledge, to our location and operation as a global bank. 

Peter Stephens on World Bank Reform

The end of the Third World does not mean that there are no poor countries, or that all countries are equally advantaged. It means the landscape has changed so much that our thinking and behavior must shift. To think of China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and Malaysia as developing countries seems anachronistic. Yes they have poverty and challenges, but… “developing”? They play a regional and global role of real significance. They have civil servants, academics and businesspeople as skilled as (and many more skilled than) World Bank staff. Developing just doesn’t capture it.

How can we not change, when China plays such a major role as an investor in Africa; when India leads us in thinking about freedom of information; when our own knowledge strategy recognizes that there is more development wisdom outside the Bank than within? How could we pretend it is business as usual – loans, AAA, donor meetings – when the G8 has been replaced by the G20, when Africa has changed so much the Bank is overhauling its Africa Action Plan, and Asia is poised to virtually eliminate absolute poverty in this generation? 

Two-thirds of people in Africa have access to cell phones. We live in an era of huge single-issue funds and multi-billion dollar private philanthropy to development goals, especially in Africa. Africa, once seen as the lagging region, is expected to outpace every region except East Asia in the next five years, even as it recovers from the effects of the financial crisis – a crisis which began in the “developed” world (ironically, as some have argued, using funds borrowed from the “developing” world). 

In such a new and rapidly changing world, the old terms (borrower, donor, for example), ways of thinking, and old products and services just don’t seem to fit the way they once did. As the world’s premier development institution, the implicit message from the President’s speech was that we either change or drift. That is a powerful message, and a necessary one.

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Submitted by eduardo brunet on
It is reassuring to hear Mr. Zoellick call for reform at the World Bank (finally). I just want to share my perception that the historic potential uneficiency stems from a two fold cause: governance and HR policies. As to the first one it has been made clear by Mr. zoellick that only empowering the interest and voices of the developing countries will shift the attitude and culture at the WB. As for the second, it is evident that there are far too many PHD employees at the Bank, promoting a more scholar approach to things than would be the case with a more standard private sector approach.. what i think we need at the WB is more people that can manage complexity and be focus on execution, but remaining truly accountable and responsible for the outcome. best

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