Timing is an important element in the publication success of a book. Here, the intention is twofold. On the one hand Mallaby reviews the ten-year trials and tribulations of the World Bank’s outgoing president, Jim Wolfensohn. On the other, he aims to provide a critical overview of the broader world and historical context in which the World Bank has been operating since its beginnings 60 years ago. While the period prior to Wolfensohn is not accorded the same detail, it is nevertheless treated as an important background to understand the Wolfensohn era. The author concludes with a few recommendations for the incoming President.
As a biography of Jim Wolfensohn, the book is a success and a good read. It’s full of personal stories, gossip and astute observations. Based on extensive interviews with Wolfensohn, other World Bankers and many friends and observers, the author reveals traits of the man that few would know outside the inner circle of friends and some of his business partners. He is ambitious and driven by his search for accomplishments and adoration, yet his visions are not necessarily backed up by clear strategies and implementation methods. He is a banker, not a development professional. He is also a philanthropist and a musician. Mallaby vividly paints the personality with all his strengths and weaknesses: the duality of a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of development banking. His term at the Bank has resulted in many new ideas, some false starts, and some long-term successes, Mallaby contends. But the route to achieve those was difficult and often confrontational. It was frustrating him and draining on his management team and staff, not to speak of his board. In real terms, Wolfensohn shook up the World Bank system – with reason – and overall the Bank is a better place for it: it is more focused on poverty alleviation, works more closely with the borrowing countries and has managed to keep the rich lending governments, more or less, on side.
Biographers often take the side of their subject. Events and people are seen through a close-up lens and objectivity is of lesser importance. This is very much the case here. Mallaby’s lens is not only focused on Wolfensohn and the World Bank, he uses a fish-eye lens where anything beyond the focus tends to get distorted or blurred. His bias shows strongly in his repeated, yet generalized, criticism of NGOs, his belittling of the UN Millennium Development Goals and of the UN agencies’ capacity to deliver development programs. While it is understandable that details are omitted and development policies and case studies cannot be discussed in depth and breadth, judgemental statements that are not substantiated create uneasiness in the reader. For example, NGOs are criticized for not embracing the World Bank’s new Water Strategy in 2002 without the author giving any indication of its substance or the reasons why NGOs did not want to buy into it. He laments that NGOs, or “No-Gos”, don’t have an “off-switch”. “Participatory” consultations appear to be described as successful only when the groups consulted agree with the World Bank policy in the end. He almost feels sorry for Wolfensohn in his efforts to reach out to such groups. Finally, Mallaby’s condescending comments on Joe Stiglitz reflect more than journalistic arrogance.
The question arises about the intended audience(s) for this book. People interested in fascinating, colourful personalities will find the person at the centre of this story worth their while. The development professionals, such as myself, will read with interest about the internal World Bank struggles during Wolfensohn’s reign. They can easily balance the biases and fill in the source gaps from their own knowledge base. However, the general reader might be well advised to consult additional material on development strategies and country programs and accept this journalist/biographer’s views with a pinch of salt. [Friederike Knabe]