The right messenger for the right messages

The World Bank’s Board established as its third criterion ”the ability to articulate a clear vision of the World Bank Group’s development mission.

It’s not a prospective candidate’s fault they have to do it: the Board’s word salad Forward Look strategy, and the IBRD/IFC capital package agreement as articulated in the Sustainable Financing for Sustainable Development Paper would challenge a Kennedy, an Obama, and even a Churchill. A PowerPoint would be so long with small-font slides that Donald Trump would go back to watching FoxNews. 

“Our Dream is a world free of poverty” was a clear message Jim Wolfensohn used to inspire the Bank and its partners. Eventually its sentiment became the headline of both the MDGs and SDGs, and the first goal of each. Freeing the world of poverty has inspired development practitioners, official development agencies, and civil society organizations. Dr Kim’s Twin Goals embraced and expanded the poverty eliminated goal. But the expanding shared prosperity lacked the clarity of meaning, and inspired little agreement on how, so that the “Twin Slogans” got little traction as a lodestar with practical actions attached. Various attempts to be practical, like “Cascade” were advanced, but haven’t won universal favor. Dr Kim’s Human Capital Index was another framing, and reflected (some) research and his own proclivities and comfort zone. Inside the Bank, there’s resentment about yet another framework for client dialogue. The Bank’s external critics have seized on it as abandoning a rights-based approach, obscuring long-standing critiques of Human Capital Theory (HCT) and its notion of ‘capitalisable humans’, seeking to shame, and ignoring income inequality within a country.

So, what is the World Bank’s narrative about its development mission in 2019? What does it do and why is it important?

Let’s try “We work with governments to make their citizens’ lives better, and their nations fairer, and more prosperous, resilient and sustainable.”

You can debate each part of those, and show where countries need to make progress. You can talk about what the Bank Group could contribute to each element, or could, with an interested government. You make the point that ‘fair’ is more important than it was even five years ago, and ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’ address political, as well as social, economic and environmental aspects. And you can personalize it, in the way Robert McNamara talked in 1973 about eliminating absolute poverty, “a condition of life so limited as to prevent realization of the potential of the genes with which one is born; a condition of life so degrading as to insult human dignity-and yet a condition of life so common as to be the lot of some 40% of the peoples of the developing countries.” Or the way Jim Wolfensohn talked about a project’s success being “the smile on a child’s face.”

The messenger has to be comfortable and confident about what the Bank does, conveying that in language for a global audience. The messenger has to be modest about the Bank’s ability to act, and candid about what it could have done better and what it should leave to others. There are times when a podium or a teleprompter are the right tools, but authenticity on social media, and when meeting students or the press are indispensable. 

The messenger must be credible in capitals, able to interact with senior finance officials and parliamentarians.

To be credible to all its audiences on issues, the next World Bank president as messenger has to speak with authority on what the Bank does, and how it acquires and demonstrates global leadership on global public goods and the signature issues for which it has long been known.

  • A defender of climate action, the Bank’s withdrawal from fossil fuels, and particularly, coal, needs to be defended. The Bank must seek to influence both borrowers and other development actors, particularly China, to adopt this position and follow the Bank’s lead on energy conservation and alternative energy. That might require rethinking the Bank’s role in nuclear, and about large dams, as well as on grids and energy regulation and institutions. The Bank’s stewardship of the climate finance instruments it runs or administers, its trusteeship role for other multilateral action, and its support of the Paris Agreement, must be protected and enhanced.
  • On growth, the new World Bank president needs to re-emphasize equity, and remain a strong and public advocate for liberal trade, removing protectionism, and enabling responsible supply chains. That’s not just about its borrowers, either, particularly as protectionism rises, and as a fraying safety net and slowing employment growth have led to populist movements worldwide.
  • On gender and inclusion, policy and practice need to evolve beyond credit for elite women and expanding microcredit, to help women who work, who must continue to shoulder the main burden of child-raising, and who need protection not just from systemic discrimination (including in the workforce) but also from sexual violence. Expansion of girls education, working with the vertical funds it hosts, must continue, particularly in fragile and post-conflict states. Someone whose past work and accomplishments in gender-informed public service, in the inclusive corporate sector, or in the NGO advocacy world speak for itself would be ideal, end not just because they were personally successful. Because the new president sets the tone, the candidate’s own employment history, and the organizations where they worked, need scrutiny.
  • Corruption remains a global problem. The candidate’s own record at neither paying nor accepting bribes must be spotless. Her or his personal financial behavior and assets must be beyond reproach, and even if they are not made public, need to be privately examined by the Executive Directors before they announce the short-list. Not everyone has been a personal corruption-fighter, but the organizations where they worked need to have ferreted out malfeasance (both internal and with their clients and partners) and handled it appropriately. Since the Bank Group sets a standard for the other IFIs, its findings and debarments have to hold, and governments must be required to enforce the punishments their own courts impose; a candidate must speak out, for example, against side deals with corrupt organizations and individuals to relieve the burden of their proven misbehavior.

Others may see the Bank’s messages differently, and I’d encourage readers to add to this list, and to the World Bank president’s role as messenger.

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About Paul Cadario

Paul Cadario is the Distinguished Fellow in Global Innovation at the University of Toronto. Cross-appointed to the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the Centre for Global Engineering, his teaching and public engagement focus on sustainable solutions for poverty reduction, including governance and the behavior of organizational leaders. Paul joined UofT in 2012 after a 37-year career at the World Bank. His frontline experience working on West Africa and China, prepared him for Bank management, working to set up the Bank’s programs in the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe. He led the change management and process reform for the Bank’s global information systems, preparing the Bank for an era of decentralization and transparency. From 2001 until 2012, he was responsible for oversight, quality assurance and compliance for the Bank’s trust fund portfolio, working with Bank staff, recipients, and development partners to ensure results and integrity.