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Sympathy for the Devil

A personal reflection on the World Bank, Jim Kim, and David Malpass

As a U.S. citizen and a global justice activist, I’ve always opposed the US’s prerogative to nominate the World Bank president. And I certainly never expected to like any U.S. candidate for the World Bank presidency. In 2012, then, I was startled when Barack Obama nominated Jim Kim.

I had met Kim back in 1995 at a protest against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC. It was no more than a handshake, but I was thrilled to meet the lead editor of Dying for Growth, a remarkable compendium of articles about the disastrous impact of IMF/WB policies on health around the world. It was one of the pillars of the multi-sectoral work I did with the 50 Years Is Enough U.S. Network of IMF/WB critics.

He had left Partners in Health well before his nomination and gone on to other, less movement-friendly positions, such as the presidency of Dartmouth College. But still, he was Jim Kim; he at least had been “one of us.” What was I, a dedicated campaigner against the U.S. monopoly on the WB presidency, to do?

I didn’t support the U.S. nomination of course, but I wasn’t so passionate in opposing it as I might otherwise have been. Less sentimental colleagues led the charge. But now that Kim has left, we know that he will be remembered primarily for turning the Bank into an even bigger booster of private-sector domination of development than it already was. So much so that he decided to bail on the job when Trump could nominate his replacement, apparently to get the obscene payoffs that await investment bankers with insider experience. Not exactly what I had been hoping for. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Kim’s legacy: Is the patient worse off for the doctor’s intervention?

As Jim Kim enjoys his last day at the helm of what he obviously considers an organisation of fairly limited influence, it is a good time to do a bit of stock-taking of our own.

One could of course say many things about the doctor’s reign at the Bank (and I would in fact invite you, dear reader, to do so in the comments section below). Given his proud mention that he had ‘read up one side of Marx to the other’ and his near religious faith in the private sector’s miraculous metamorphosis into a benefic development actor, one hopes he was a more attentive medical student.

He at least seemed to be more engaged in whatever management consultancy books he used to assist him in convincing shareholders to agree a capital increase in the absence of any significant structural changes to the way the organisation works. In light of well-documented concerns within the Bank about the lack of focus on development outcomes and the pernicious impact of counter-productive staff incentives, this seems indeed quite an ‘accomplishment’. Perhaps he is right in asserting that it is the right time to depart and, literally, capitalise on the work he has done in making the world’s most important public bank ever more like one of the private sector firms he so admires.

While much has been written about the negative consequences of his, er… less-than-stellar, management acumen, his trend toward centralisation and exclusion of opposing views, to me the most significant element of his legacy is his energetic contribution in turning the Bank further away from its development mandate and into a poster-child for corporatized and financialised development (if one can use this word here). Continue reading

New World Bank President: From ‘Who’ and ‘How’ to ‘for What’!

With the formal process of selection of a new World Bank President kick-starting in a week’s time, it’s imperative to have a view beyond this selection, now that the dust of Jim Kim’s sudden resignation has settled down.

That the process of this selection should be transparent and inclusive goes unsaid. Further, in a statement issued earlier this month, the Bank’s Board of Directors “affirmed its commitment to an open, merit-based and transparent selection process”, except that in the past such commitments met a weak knee when faced with the dictates of United States in the appointment of the previous presidents. Though the clarion call has been given earlier also, it is high time that people beyond the borders of US are considered, particularly that from the global south, and a woman, who has been at the receiving end (both literally as well as figuratively) of Bank’s lending over the past seven decades.

However, if the new president – whether from global south or north, whether selected through an open process or not– is just to fill-in the gap and continues the existing policies and priorities of the Bank as in the previous years well, nothing changes much. In fact, a president from global south will only be used to legitimise what the Bank does!

Here’s the crux of the story known to many – as a lender, the Bank extends loans and technical assistance for economic, institutional or other policy reforms – not always for specific projects – in countries they operate. This influences the public spending of that country and, as always observed globally, paves way for greater private sector involvement and management of State-owned enterprises. In fact, privatization of public utilities has been Bank’s prime agenda since the past many decades. Continue reading