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Interview with James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, on ABC's This Week

Interview with George Stephanopoulos, host of "This Week" on ABC TV
January 2, 2005

George Stephanopoulos, host, ABC News' "This Week:": Mr. Wolfensohn welcome. You just heard the Secretary-General (Kofi Annan) say this is going to be a five-to-ten year effort costing billions of dollars, your organization pledged $250 million earlier in the week, is it safe to assume that number is going to go up?

World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn: Yes, it's certain that it will. The $250 million is for the immediate emergency and, as you heard from the Secretary-General and from your correspondents, the real question at the moment is delivering supplies, making sure that people have water and medical attention, it's not the distribution of the money. So this that we've indicated is for immediate reconstruction needs and after that there will be a great deal more coming.

Stephanopoulos: So this is just a downpayment. Do you any idea what kind of investment the World Bank is going to be making over the long-term?

Wolfensohn: I think it is very, very difficult to say at this moment. We'll be going out within a couple of weeks to do a needs assessment in these countries along with our colleagues from the Asian Development Bank, from the UN, from Japan, from the United States. What is important is to let the people in the countries drive what their needs are and have a coordinated effort, engage the community, and only after that will we know how much. It's my expectation that the community will come together and give these governments considerable help.

Stephanopoulos: Billions? Are you saying you expect in to be billions?

Wolfensohn: Well it will be some billions of dollars that will come from the international community and my guess is that the World Bank itself will probably double or treble the amount of money for further reconstruction.

Stephanopoulos: As you talk with the core group, as you talk with the Secretary-General, as you talk with your representatives on the ground, how are you all dividing up responsibilities, what is the specific role of the World Bank right now?

Wolfensohn: Well the specific role of the World Bank is to be ready with financial assistance immediately after this emergency takes place because you need to reconnect water, you need to reconnect power, you need roads, you need bridges, and that has to be done urgently. At this moment, the critical need is survival and immediately after the emergency then the World Bank and the other agencies come in to work under the leadership of the governments, to make sure that the locality is reconstructed both physically and emotionally. The thing that is crucial here is the human dimension of it and the other aspect that we need to understand is that these areas are real poverty areas. These are areas in which we've been working for many, many years, and they're also areas, interestingly enough, which have been subject to conflict. So, we have a dimension of work, which ranges from the human to the resolution of conflict in conjunction with the UN and then under the leadership of the government, the reconstruction itself.

Stephanopoulos: I know that in recent years the World Bank is starting to pay more attention to preventing the worst effects of natural disasters before they happen, why wasn't a better early-warning system in place here?

Wolfensohn: Well I think no-one expected, in the Indian Ocean, to have the same experience that there was in the Pacific. I think you that in the tsunamis that have happened just recently in the last 50 years that they're generally centered on the Pacific and there there has been an early-warning system, and in the case of the Maldives, which is in the Indian Ocean it was so vulnerable that at least some wall was put up in the capital. But I think no-one expected a disaster of these proportions and I'm quite certain that the nations are now going to come together and ensure that an early-warning system takes place.

Stephanopoulos: And what more can be done to create this kind of culture of prevention. As you look over this last generation, back in the early 1960s you get about one hundred of these natural disasters a year, now we're seeing five hundred a year, and we all know that the poorest areas end up having by far the worst fallout yet the numbers I've seen show that the World Bank and other international organizations are only dedicating about ten percent of your budgets to prevention. Can more be done, and what should be done?

Wolfensohn: Well the major problem we have as you know George is the total amount of money that is going to countries in poverty and we have to take it terms of priorities. What you're saying is exactly correct, that the world is spending fifty or sixty billion dollars only on assisting developing countries, while we're spending nine hundred billion dollars a year on military expenditure. What we need to do is increase the totality of money that is given to the poorest areas and then we can do more on prevention but we have crucial needs at the moment just to get people out of poverty and to get the eight hundred million people that go to bed at night hungry, give them some food and some hope.

Stephanopoulos: You're echoing it sounds like what Jan Egeland of the Humanitarian Office of the UN said earlier this week when he called developed nations stingy with development assistance. Was that a fair characterization?

Wolfensohn: I don't think stingy is perhaps the world and I'm not sure that that's...what he meant but I absolutely believe that there is a need for the world too focus much more on the issue of poverty than we have up to now, and we'll have a chance to review that at a UN meeting that will take place in September of this year.

Stephanopoulos: The Paris Club is also getting together, that's another group of developed nations, next week I believe to talk about whether debt should be forgiven for these countries that have been hardest hit. How much of a difference would that make right now?

Wolfensohn: Well I think obviously at this minute the issue is physical and human but over the coming years it gets back to the same question, how much money can we get to these countries to put into development, and if you relieve the amount of their debt repayments then they have more money to put into their natural development. Of course in Indonesia, which is ten times the size of Sri Lanka it's a different problem and then you have countries like the Maldives which are tiny, but which have been devastated in terms of their ongoing activity. So debt relief can be very, very important and that will be part of a needs assessment and the method of financing that we'll be doing in the coming weeks.

Stephanopoulos: Finally sir, your term as World Bank President ends this year but would you like to stay on?

Wolfensohn: I've had ten years and I think that's probably enough but if the need is there I'll do whatever the shareholders want. My understanding and my belief is that probably during the course of this year I'll give over to someone else.

Stephanopoulos: Okay Mr. Wolfensohn, thank you very much.

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