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Pages from World Bank History - Bank Pays Tribute to Robert McNamara

 A presentation of historical events by the World Bank Group Archives, Information Solutions Group (ISG).

March 21, 2003  At a dinner on Wednesday night, hosts Jim and Elaine Wolfensohn gathered over 200 people to pay tribute to Robert S. McNamara, President of the Bank from 1968-81. In attendance were distinguished guests including former President Tom Clausen (1981-86), Ted Sorensen (one of President Kennedy's closest aides), family and friends, myriad Bank staff from the past, the current senior management team, and several Executive Directors including the Dean of the Board, Franco Passacantando. It was an evening of speeches, memories, and fun focused on Robert McNamara's legacy of transforming the Bank into the world's premier development institution.

As part of the tribute, President Wolfensohn wrote the remarks published below. Following these remarks is a summary chronology of the McNamara years, prepared by the World Bank Group Archives. Also unveiled Wednesday was a photo exhibit celebrating McNamara's presidency. Created by the Banks Art Program, all staff are invited to attend the photo exhibit on the 13th floor.

"Bob McNamara is my friend. He is also someone whom I have long respected and admired: for his extraordinary abilities, his passion, for his achievement in bringing to the world's attention the urgent issues of development and above all, for bringing real action to the fight against poverty. President John F. Kennedy called him "the smartest man" he ever met. President Leopold Senghor called him "a poet of action." He is one of those rare human beings whom, whatever they do, make a pivotal contribution.

"All of us associated with the World Bank honor Bob and recognize that it was he who transformed the institution from being a "bank" into being the world's premier development agency. When he assumed the presidency of the Bank, there had been no recent loans to such critical countries as Indonesia or Egypt, nor to the great majority of the poorest nations of Africa. He changed that.

"In 1968, when Bob came to the Bank, it was lending about $1 billion per year. When he left in 1981, Bank lending stood at about $12 billion a year. More importantly, he also changed the focus of the Banks work beyond infrastructure and projects to basic human needs, poverty reduction, and creating an economic environment that can deliver for poor people. In the process, he not only changed the Bank, he changed the way the world looks at development.

"It was Bob who, in his famous Nairobi speech in 1973, proposed the term "absolute poverty." He defined this as a condition of deprivation that "falls below any rational definition of human decency." For all of us in the development community, his call to action in the fight against poverty still rings in our ears. It is still the greatest challenge facing the world todayand Bob showed us something can be done.

"Like all great men, Bob is effective because he dares to dream -- and to pursue his dreams with action: on the nexus of agriculture stagnation, population growth and environmental degradation. On the conflict between military expenditures and development. On river blindness. Above all, on poverty. His dream remains our dream.

"Bob acted on the premise that giving a hand to people to lift themselves out of poverty is the foundation on which development must be built. During his presidency at the Bank, he shaped an institution that helps many of the worlds poorest countries to do just that. His shaping of that institution was not only his finest achievement, but one of the world's finest achievements in the 20th century. And one that will endure well into the 21st century."

Robert S. McNamara at the World Bank Group: a Brief Chronology


McNamara becomes President of the Bank, IDA, and IFC on April 1.

At McNamara's invitation, Lester Pearson accepts chairmanship of international commission to examine world development (the Pearson Commission Report, Partners in Development, issued in September 1969).

McNamara's first Annual Meetings speech outlines bold five-year program and proposes a doubling of Bank lending; announces that the Bank has raised more funds by borrowing in the last 90 days than in the whole of any single calendar year in its history; signals upcoming transformation of the organization.


McNamara delivers a landmark address at Notre Dame University on the problem of excessive population growth, "the most delicate and difficult issue of our era perhaps of any era in history."

IDA-2 comes into effect, with a commitment authority of $1.4 billion for 1969-1971.

The Annual Meetings speech promises a new emphasis on population issues, educational advance, and agricultural expansion. McNamara says that "development" is more than "economic growth" and urges action on the Pearson Report.


McNamara proposes formation of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which goes on to make a major contribution to increasing global food production and reducing hunger.

The Bank approves its first population project totaling $2 million to Jamaica in support of family planning programs.

A key message from the Annual Meetings speech in Copenhagen: "We cannot allow the fundamental task of developing the undeveloped nations of this planet to fail for lack of resources."


The Banks first-ever sector study paper is published, as requested by McNamara, on Water Supply and Sewerage.

The Banks first-ever loan for pollution control in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

McNamara says in his Annual Meetings speech, "malnutrition is widespread and it limits the physical, and often the mental growth of hundreds of millions and it is a major barrier to human development"


The Bank announces it has achieved the goal, set by McNamara, to provide twice as much assistance in fiscal 1969-73 as it did in the previous five years. For the first time, lending for agriculture exceeds that of any other sector. Major reorganization of the Bank announced to enhance its focus as a development institution.

In a major speech in Stockholm, McNamara speaks of the dilemma between economic growth and environmental concerns arguing that they are not irreconcilable, and that the rich world has an obligation to assist the poor. In a major speech in Santiago, he focuses on the "skewing of income" and on the plight of the "bottom 40 percent" of poor people.

In his Annual Meetings speech, McNamara calls for nations "to give greater priority to establishing growth targets in terms of essential human needs: in terms of nutrition, housing, health, literacy and employment.


McNamara begins second term as President of the World Bank Group.

McNamara proposes that the Bank take the lead in mobilizing international funds for an onchocerciasis (riverblindness) control program and convenes first meeting of the Onchocerciasis Control Program.

In Nairobi, McNamara focuses his Annual Meetings speech on the rural poor and "absolute poverty: a condition of life so degraded by disease, illiteracy, malnutrition and squalor as to deny its victims basic human necessities and a condition of life so common as to be the lot of some 40% of the peoples of the developing countries." Rural development is identified as a development goal.

The Annual Meetings of the Board of Governors of the World Bank Group and the IMF held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1973 was the first large international conference to take place in Africa.


The Development Committee is established to give greater voice to development issues on the international scene.

Redistribution with Growth is published, with author Hollis Chenery focusing on income distribution and economic growth. The report was a product of the new Development Policy Staff, created by McNamara to strengthen the Banks policy advice.

At the Annual Meetings, McNamara's keynote speech takes place against a backdrop of oil crisis and inflationary pressures: "Aid is not a luxury something affordable when times are easy, and superfluous when times become temporarily troublesome. It is precisely the opposite. Aid is a continuing social and moral responsibility, and its need now is greater than ever."


IDA-4 becomes effective at a level of $4.5 billion.

Intermediate Financing Facility ("Third Window") is established, using OPEC contributions to provide development assistance.

McNamara's speech during the Annual Meetings focuses on the life of the urban poor, described as "unspeakably grim." He states that the "central task of development is the reduction and ultimately the elimination of absolute poverty."


IFC's capital stock is increased from $110 to $650 million.

World Bank approves first loan for nutrition to Brazil for $19 million.

The Annual Meetings speech in Manila describes the plight of the poorest nations and the growing burden of debt, with McNamara calling for cooperation and coordination among the various international development agencies.


McNamara proposes creation of a new commission to break the impasse in discussions between the rich and poor nations related to economic development, suggesting Willy Brandt as chairman (The "Brandt Commission" released its landmark report in 1980: North-South: A Program for Survival).

McNamara makes major speech at MIT on "World Change and World Security" that links issues of development to issues of global peace and stability with a focus on population growth.

The Annual Meetings speech calls for continued research into the problems of development. McNamara promises that the Bank will produce an annual "report on world development."


The first World Development Report is published. The theme is the prospects for accelerating growth and alleviating poverty.

The Executive Directors endorse a new Bank policy to control the environmental impact of Bank-supported projects.

McNamara uses the Annual Meetings speech to call for measures that will increase the productivity of the poor and increase the access of the poor to essential public services: clean water, basic education, medical care, electricity, and public transportation.


World Bank Group commitments exceed $10 billion for the first time, with first loan for the health sector.

In a major speech at the University of Chicago, McNamara focuses on development and the arms race, saying that the concept of security has become erroneously and dangerously oversimplified into a problem which nations thought could be addressed through an increase in military hardware. He says alternatives to an arms race include the acceleration of economic and social progress in developing countries.

During the Annual Meetings in Belgrade, McNamara reviews development progress in the decade of the 1970s and sounds the alarm: "Income grew the least where it was needed most: in the poorest countries, containing over half the population of the world."


Banks Board of Governors approves a general capital increase of approximately $44 billion (to $85 billion).

The Peoples Republic of China joins the World Bank Group.

In his final Annual Meetings speech, McNamara reflects on 13 years as Bank President. Focusing on poverty reduction, McNamara states that "What these countless millions of the poor need and want is what each of us needs and wants: the well-being of those that they love; a better future for their children; an end to injustice; and a beginning of hope."


June 30: Robert S. McNamara ends his tenure as the fifth President of the World Bank Group.

Without Records there is no History. Courtesy of ISG's World Bank Group Archives.


Former President Bob McNamara addresses the guests assembled in his honor during Wednesday night's dinner.



Bob McNamara and Elaine Wolfensohn sharing a laugh.




President Wolfensohn delivering his remarks during the tribute dinner.




A view of the tribute held in the gallery on the 13th floor, MC.




Hanna Voicke, President of the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund speaking during the dinner.



Bob McNamara, enjoying the festivities at the tribute in his honor.




McNamara (center) and Jim Huttlinger (right) of the Bank Group Archives, discuss a photo from the exhibit with a fellow dinner guest.




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