Robert Zoellick has been a steadying force at the World Bank since he took over in 2007, after the abrupt departure of Paul Wolfowitz in an ethics scandal. He has restored a sense of pride and shared mission in an institution created 68 years ago to promote growth and alleviate poverty in the developing world. He secured the first capital package for the Bank in 20 years. The challenge for Mr Zoellick’s successor is to build on his legacy to ensure the Bank remains relevant in a world which has changed radically since it was founded at Bretton Woods.
Today three-quarters of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries. Big developing economies such as India and Brazil can increasingly find what they need on global capital markets and are less inclined to suffer the constraints of World Bank lending. Aid will still be important to the poorest, but it is a far smaller financial challenge than before. This is a mark of success for the fight against poverty. Millions have been lifted out of destitution. But it also means that the World Bank’s focus must shift.
Rather than just looking for funds, many of the World Bank’s clients are now seeking guidance and expertise to develop knowledge in areas such as technology and procurement. Under Mr Zoellick, the Bank has taken the first step by making its databases publicly available. The initiative could be extended by reducing the Bank’s own reliance on US-based knowledge centres, to bring in experience learnt in other parts of the world.
A more flexible, collaborative approach to the knowledge it gathers will give the World Bank more tools to deal with fragile and volatile countries such as Somalia or Afghanistan, where the need to repair damaged states is greatest but the solutions are less obvious.
A new approach may also help to answer the growing complaints from the World Bank’s increasingly vociferous developing country shareholders, who resent the continued dominance over governance by western powers. It is to be regretted that Mr Zoellick’s departure will not lead to a truly open succession contest. His replacement will be chosen according to the decades old stitch-up between the US and Europe that gives the job to an American.
Yet the World Bank’s developing country shareholders still have a voice. If the candidate is not seen to have the vision, intellect and drive to make the changes the bank needs, they should make those voices heard.
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