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Commentary: Banker Who Cared For Poor Of The World

Over the past decade, the global economy has achieved unprecedented prosperity built on trade, international capital flows, and technological innovation. Amid this undeniable progress, however, remain widespread poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Perhaps no person has done more to raise the alarm - earning deserved credit for many successes and understanding all too clearly the remaining shortcomings - than James Wolfensohn, the outgoing president of the World Bank, writes Rodrigo de Rato, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in an op-ed published in Business Day (South Africa, 05/31).


Wolfensohn led the Bank on to the cutting edge of every important development debate, and was at the forefront of the effort to combat HIV/AIDS, as well as other deadly diseases that threaten impoverished countries, writes Rato. He has been a forthright spokesman for women's rights and a champion of environmental concerns, as well as a formidable advocate in arguing for debt reduction for the most heavily indebted nations. He also has placed the Bank at the centre of the effort to help rebuild nations emerging from devastating civil conflict, from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to East Timor.


At the same time, Wolfensohn made a big contribution to development work by arguing that poverty must be treated as a multidimensional problem. It is now widely accepted that financial assistance alone will not bring about effective poverty reduction. Rather, sustainable, pro-poor growth is the key, requiring political stability - peace and security for individuals - good governance, and ownership of policies by all stakeholders. Under Wolfensohn, the Bank followed through on this comprehensive approach in a concrete fashion, making significant inroads into global poverty. In the past 10 years, the Bank was the largest external financier of primary education, basic health care, HIV/AIDS programs, and programs aimed at protecting the environment and biodiversity. This agenda goes to the heart of improving human dignity and maintaining sustainable development.


Rato further notes that Wolfensohn's insistence that corruption be confronted as part of the development process was another valuable step. Corruption poses the single largest obstacle to growth and development in many countries, especially as it diverts resources from the poor. The Bank insisted that fighting corruption be made synonymous with fighting poverty.


Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, further writes in a commentary published in the International Herald Tribune (05/31) that Wolfensohn can claim several key accomplishments as a manager. He got poor people involved in the designing and running of projects. "Development must not be done to them, but by them," he once said. Wolfensohn brought the Bank into the Internet age and used sophisticated distance-learning techniques to give officials from developing countries access to outside knowledge and experience. He also set up new tools to evaluate the success or failure of every project. He developed extensive ties between the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations where none existed before. And he was the first president to build effective partnerships with international institutions like the UN Development Program and international corporations like British Petroleum. Lastly, he kept two flames burning even as the Bush administration pursued very different priorities. The first was the need to reduce global poverty. The second was the importance of building strong multilateral institutions in an era of intensifying globalization.


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany, 05/31) argues that one of Wolfensohn’s most important achievements was the decentralization of the Bank. About one third of the roughly 9,300 employees no longer work at headquarters in Washington, but are spread around the globe. Working on the ground in developing countries was a requirement to drive forward the fight against poverty. The daily suggests that this goes hand in hand with the Bank’s fight against corruption in poor countries, which is one of the biggest hurdles for growth and prosperity. It was under Wolfensohn’s initiative that corruption found its way onto the development aid agenda, the German daily notes.


Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Switzerland, 05/31) further writes that Wolfensohn’s ideas on how to fight poverty sometimes drew the criticism of those who accused the World Bank president of drawing too long a wish list much to the detriment of a focused work plan. He was particularly criticized – including from within the World Bank– for giving in too much to non-governmental organizations. Development aid projects, on which the Bank spends about $20 billion a year, were put under an increasing number of conditions, which mirrored the specific interests of NGOs, though their meaningfulness for a country’s development remained questionable, writes the Swiss daily.


Meanwhile, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (05/30), James Wolfensohn says his biggest regret is that he couldn’t get the leaders of the world to recognize that the real challenge to global stability is poverty. “It is not that terror is not important, but we're spending $1,000 billion a year on military expenditure and we're spending maybe $50 billion to $60 billion a year on development, and it seems to me that if we could spend more money on giving people hope, on dealing with the question of poverty, there would be fewer wars to fight and we would probably have a much, much more healthy use of our resources.” Wolfensohn further says that global warming is also a very significant security and poverty issue. It is affecting particularly the poorest countries - marginal farmers in Central America, people that live in island states that are being covered by water or have the possibility of losing even their land, and massive changes in environment and in temperatures.

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