Reviewed in Canada 🇨🇦 on November 4, 2004
Sebastian Mallaby, editorial writer and columnist at the Washington Post, has come up with a page-turner on the challenges of promoting development, as seen through the eyes of World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Many success stories of the Bank's work are described in fascinating detail. In Bosnia, according to Mallaby, the Bank played an important role in brokering a peace deal between Serbs and Croats and was successful in quickly providing money and expertise for the reconstruction. In Uganda, the Bank was flexible enough to allow a home-grown poverty reduction strategy to take root and to nurture it. But the Bank's failures are also described unsparingly. Mallaby presents a detailed study of how the Bank's condoning of corruption in Indonesia was the root cause of many of the country's troubles during the Asian crisis. He also says that the Bank late and timid reaction to fight AIDS "remains inexcusable."
The portrayal of Wolfensohn is likewise two-sided. Mallaby credits his "instincts as being ahead of his peers" on the need for providing debt relief in the mid-1990s and on tackling corruption. Wolfensohn is also recognized as being instrumental in pushing for greater country ownership of reforms and for the decentralization of the Bank through the relocation of most country directors to the field. At the same time, the book has candid descriptions of what Mallaby considers to be Wolfensohn's failures, for instance his tendency to share "credit with no one."
North-based NGOs come across in Mallaby's portrayal as the villain of the piece, Lilliputians who tie down the Bank and keep it from doing good. The NGOs, says Mallaby, have killed worthy projects by overstating the likely labor and environmental impacts and insisting on standards that developing countries can ill-afford. For example, in Laos "the environmental standards that the Bank proposed for a megadam project matched those of a country like Sweden; this was like telling the Laotians that they must not travel in motorized vehicles unless they purchased brand-new Volvos with passenger air bags."
Not all Bank failures are the fault of NGOs; sometimes, says Mallaby, the Bank cannot succeed because of lack of cooperation by the client. In 1998, the Bank wanted to execute an project to combat AIDS in Russia, but the country's health ministry did not want to acknowledge the problem. When the ministry came around, Russian pharmaceutical makers blocked the Bank, fearing that it would open the drug market to foreign competitors. Russia's medical establishment was also opposed as "hospitals had a large and antiquated infrastructure for treating TB, which would be rendered redundant by the Bank's modernizations."
Mallaby's sympathetic portrayal of the Bank contrasts with some of the harsh characterizations of other observers. In his recent book Why Globalization Works, Martin Wolf calls the Bank a "fatally flawed institution," whose source of "failures was its commitment to lending." Describing the situation when he worked at the Bank in the 1970s, Wolf writes: "every division also found itself under great pressure to lend money, virtually regardless of the quality of the projects on offer or of the development programmes of the countries. This undermined the professional integrity of the staff and encouraged borrowers to pile up debt, no matter what the likely returns." The Meltzer Commission, appointed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, made a similar charge in its report. Mallaby alludes on occasion to this pressure to lend, particularly to middle-income countries, but does give it the importance ascribed by others.
Mallaby presents shifts in the types of lending favored by the Bank as an example of its learning from experience. He notes that the Bank started with the notion that "infrastructure was the route to human betterment." Then it moved from building physical capital into building human capital by funding education projects, then from human capital into social capital by funding projects to improve the quality of institutions. And, very recently, as Mallaby notes, the Bank has partially reverted to its early emphasis on physical capital. Others put a less positive spin on the Bank's intellectual journey. For example, in his book The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly-a former Bank staffer-treats the same evolution as a chase after fads that failed to deliver: "We thought that certain objects associated with prosperity in the industrialized world - dams, roads, schools - could bring success to the developing world. Later, fads changed to include institutional magical objects. Thus we urged governments to embrace democracy, constitutions, independent judiciaries, decentralization to local governments and other magic bullets. None of them worked."
While the book may not satisfy critics of the Bank, its accessibility and broad scope make it required reading not just for experts on development but for anyone with curiosity about global development, the Bank, and James Wolfensohn.