Charting a New Course for the World Bank: Three Options for its New President

Since its 50th anniversary in 1994, the World Bank has been led by four presidents: Lewis Preston until his untimely death in 1995; then James Wolfensohn, who gave the institution new energy, purpose and legitimacy; followed by Paul Wolfowitz, whose fractious management tossed the World Bank into deep crisis; and most recently, Robert Zoellick, who will be remembered for having stabilized the bank and provided effective leadership during its remarkably swift and strong response to the global financial crisis.

Throughout these years of ups and downs in the bank’s leadership, standing and lending, the overall trend of its global role was downhill. While it remains one of the world’s largest multilateral development finance institutions, its position relative to other multilateral financing mechanisms is now much less prominent. Other multilateral institutions have taken over key roles. For example, the European Union agencies and the regional development banks have rapidly expanded their portfolios, and new “vertical funds” such as the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have become major funding vehicles. At the same time, according to a 2011 OECD Development Assistance Committee report multilateral aid has declined as a share of total aid. Meanwhile, non-governmental aid flows have dramatically increased, including those from major foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also from new internet-based channels bundling small individual donations, such as Global Giving. The World Bank— which 20 years ago was still the biggest and most powerful global development agency and hence a ready target for criticism— today is just one of the many institutions that offer for development to the poor and emerging market economies.

Against this backdrop, the World Bank, its members and Dr. Kim face three options in its long-term trajectory over the next 10 to 20 years: 1) the bank can continue on its current path of gradual decline; 2) it might be radically scaled back and eventually eliminated, as other aid channels take over; or 3) it can dramatically reinvent itself as a global finance institution that bundles resources for growing global needs.

There is no doubt in this author’s mind that the World Bank should remain a key part of the global governance architecture, but that requires that the new president forge an ambitious long-term vision for the bank – something that has been lacking for the last 30 years – and then reform the institution and build the authorizing environment that will make it possible to achieve the vision.

Option 1: “Business as Usual” = Continued Gradual Decline

The first option, reflecting the business-as-usual approach that characterized most of the Zoellick years of leadership will mean that the bank will gradually continue to lose in scope, funding and relevance. Its scope will be reduced since the emerging market economies find the institution insufficiently responsive to their needs. They have seen the regional development banks take on increasing importance, as reflected in the substantially greater capital increases in recent years for some of these institutions than for the World Bank in relative terms (and in the case of the Asian Development Bank, even in absolute terms). And emerging market economies have set up their own thriving regional development banks without participation of the industrial countries, such as the Caja Andina de Fomento (CAF) in Latin America and the Eurasian Development Bank in the former Soviet Union. This trend will be reinforced with the creation of a “South Bank” or “BRIC Bank”, an initiative that is currently well underway.

At the same time, the World Bank’s soft loan window, the International Development Association (IDA), will face less support from industrial countries going through deep fiscal crises, heightened competition from other concessional funds, and a perception of reduced need, as many of the large and formerly poor developing countries graduate to middle-income status. It is significant that for the last IDA replenishment much of the increase in resources was due to its growing reliance on advance repayments made by some of its members and commitments against future repayments, thus in effect mortgaging its future financial capacity. The World Bank’s status as a knowledge leader in development will also continue to be challenged with the rise of research from developing countries and growing think tank capacity, as well as a proliferation of private and official agencies doling out advice and technical assistance.

As a result, under this option, over the next 10 to 20 years the World Bank will likely become no more than a shadow of the preeminent global institution it once was. It will linger on but will not be able to contribute substantially to address any of the major global financial, economic or social challenges in the future.
Option 2: “The Perfect Storm” = Breaking Up the World Bank

In 1998, the U.S. Congress established a commission to review and advise on the role of the international financial institutions. In 2000, the commission, led by Professor Allan Meltzer, released its recommendations, which included far-reaching changes for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, most of them designed to reduce the scope and financial capacities of these institutions in line with the conservative leanings of the majority of the commission’s members. For the World Bank, the “Meltzer Report” called for much of its loan business and financial assets to be devolved to the regional development banks, in effect ending the life of the institution as we know it. The report garnered some attention when it was first issued, but did not have much impact in the way the institution was run in the following 10 years.

In 2010, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on the international financial institutions, which called on them to aim toward “succeeding in their development and economic missions and thereby putting them out of business”. However, it did not recommend a drastic restructuring of the multilateral development banks, and instead argued strongly against any dilution of the U.S. veto right, its lock on leadership selection, and its voting share at the IMF and World Bank. While not dramatic in its short-term impact, these recommendations were likely a strong factor in the subsequent decisions made by the Obama administration to oppose a substantial increase in contributions by emerging markets during the latest round of capital increase at the World Bank to push for an American to replace Robert Zoellick as World Bank president. These actions reinforced for emerging market countries that the World Bank would not change sufficiently and quickly enough to serve their interests, and thus helped create the momentum for setting up a new “South Bank.”

While there seems to be no imminent risk of a break-up of the World Bank along the lines recommended by the Meltzer Report, the combination of fiscal austerity and conservative governments in key industrial countries, compounded by a declining interest of the emerging market countries in sustaining the institution’s future, could create the perfect storm for the bank. Specifically, as governments face constrained fiscal resources, confront the increasing fragmentation of the multilateral aid architecture, and take steps to consolidate their own aid agencies, they might conclude that it would be more efficient and fiscally prudent to rationalize the international development system. There is a obvious overlap on the ground in the day-to-day business of the World Bank and that of the regional development banks. This is a reality which is being fostered by the growing decentralization of the World Bank into regional hubs; in fact, a recent evaluation by the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group concluded that “[r]ather than functioning as a global institution, the bank is at risk of evolving into six regional banks”. With the growing financial strength, institutional capacity and dynamism, and the apparently greater legitimacy of regional development banks among their regional members, shareholders might eventually decide that consolidation of the World Bank’s operations with those of the regional development banks, in favor of the latter, is the preferred approach.

There are lots of reasons to think that this drastic step would be difficult to take politically, financially and administratively, and therefore the inertia common to the international governance architecture will also prevail in this case. However, the new World Bank president would be well advised to be prepared for the possibility of a “perfect storm” under which the idea of eviscerating the World Bank could gain some traction,. The more the bank is seen to fade away, as postulated under Option 1 above, the greater is the likelihood that Option 2 would be given serious consideration.

Option 3: “A Different World Bank” = Creating a Stronger Global Institution for the Coming Decades

Despite all the criticism and the decline in its relative role as a development finance institution in recent decades, the World Bank is still one of the strongest and most effective development institutions in a world. According to a recent independent ranking of the principal multilateral and bilateral aid institutions by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development “IDA consistently ranks among the best aid agencies in each dimension of quality”.

A third, radically different option from the first two, would build on this strength and ensure that the world has an institution 10 to 20 years from now which helps the global community and individual countries to respond effectively to the many global challenges which the world will undoubtedly face: continued poverty, hunger, conflict and fragility, major infrastructure and energy needs, education and health challenges, and global warming and environmental challenges. On top of this, global financial crises will likely recur and require institutions like the World Bank to help countries provide safety nets and the structural foundations of long-term growth, as the bank has amply demonstrated since 2008. With this as a broad mandate, how could the World Bank respond under new dynamic?

First, it would change its organizational and operating modalities to take a leaf out of the book of the vertical funds, which have been so successful in tackling major development challenges in a focused and scaled-up manner. This means substantially rebalancing the internal matrix between the regional and country departments on the one hand and the technical departments on the other hand. According to the same evaluation cited above, the World Bank has tipped too far toward short-term country priorities and has failed to adequately reflect the need for long-term, dedicated sectoral engagement. The World Bank needs to fortify its reputation as an institution that can muster the strongest technical expertise, fielding team with broad global experience and with first rate regional and country perspective. This does not imply that the World Bank would abandon its engagement at the country level, but it means that it would systematically support the pursuit of long-term sectoral and sub-sectoral strategies at the country level, linked to regional and global initiatives, and involving private-public partnership to assure that development challenges are addressed at scale and in a sustained manner.

Second, recognizing that all countries have unmet needs for which they need long-term finance and best practice in areas such as infrastructure, energy, climate change and environment, the World Bank could become a truly global development institution by opening up its funding windows to all countries, not just an arbitrarily defined subset of developing countries. This would require substantially revising the current graduation rules and possibly the financial instruments. This would mean that the World Bank becomes the global equivalent of the European Investment Bank (EIB) and of the German Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau (KfW)—development banks that have successfully supported the infrastructure development of the more advanced countries.

Third, the World Bank would focus its own knowledge management activities and support for research and development in developing countries much more on a search for effective and scalable solutions, linked closely to its operational engagement which would be specifically designed to support the scaling up of tested innovations, along the lines pioneered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Fourth, for those countries with strong project management capacities, the World Bank would dramatically simplify its lending processes, following the example of the EIB. This would make it a much more efficient operational institution, making it a more attractive partner to its borrowing member countries, especially the emerging market economies.

Fifth, the membership of the World Bank would fix some fundamental problems with its financial structure and governance. It would invite the emerging market economies to make significantly larger contributions to its capital base in line with their much-enhanced economic and financial capacities. It would revamp the bank’s voting and voice rules to reflect the changed global economic weights and financial contributions of emerging markets. The bank would also explore, based on the experience of the vertical funds, tapping the resources of non-official partners, such as foundations and the private sector as part of its capital and contribution base. Of course, this would bring with it further significant changes in the governance of the World Bank. And the bank would move swiftly to a transparent selection of its leadership on the basis of merit without reference to nationality.

Conclusion: The New World Bank President Needs to Work with the G-20 Leaders to Chart a Course Forward
The new president will have to make a choice between these three options. Undoubtedly, the easiest choice is “business-as-usual”, perhaps embellished with some marginal changes that reflect the perspective and new insights that an outsider will bring. There is no doubt that the forces of institutional and political inertia tend to prevent dramatic change. However, it is also possible that Dr. Kim, with his background in a relatively narrow sectoral area may recognize the need for a more vertical approach in the bank’s organizational and operational model. Therefore, he may be more inclined than others to explore Option 3.

If he pursues Option 3, Dr. Kim will need a lot of help. The best place to look for help might be the G-20 leadership. One could hope that at least some of the leaders of the G-20 understand that Options 1 and 2 are not in the interest of their countries and the international community. Hopefully, they would be willing to push their peers to contemplate some radical changes in the multilateral development architecture. This might involve the setting up of a high-level commission as recently recommended by this author, which would review the future of the World Bank as part of a broader approach to rationalize the multilateral system in the interest of greater efficiency and effectiveness. But in setting up such a commission, the G-20 should state a clear objective, namely that the World Bank, perhaps the strongest existing global development institution, should not be gutted or gradually starved out of existence. Instead, it needs to be remade into a focused, effective and truly global institution. If Dr. Kim embraces this vision and develops actionable ideas for the commission and the G-20 leaders to consider and support, then he may bring the right medicine for an ailing giant.