Jim Wolfensohn—A man with ideas before his time

FILE PHOTO: Former head of the World Bank James Wolfensohn participates in a panel discussion about Poverty Alleviation at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York September 21, 2006.  REUTERS/Chip East

When Jim Wolfensohn returned from a summer vacation at his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1998, he shocked many of us at the World Bank by introducing something he called the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF). His big idea: That there was a set of structural, social, and human aspects of how societies develop that should be measured using an analytical framework in much the same way as the traditional financial metrics of development like GDP, investment, trade, and financial flows.

The CDF starts with a call for good and clean government and goes on to articulate the need for better management of the environment, for a stronger role for cities and the private sector, for more inclusion and stronger safety nets, for better partnerships.

With hindsight, it is clear that Jim Wolfensohn’s antennae had picked out the core elements of sustainable development fully two decades before the rest of the world came around to understanding them.

Within the World Bank, the CDF was met with a mixture of skepticism and belief. There were certainly those who cheered the idea of taking on corruption more centrally, although the skeptics kept asking how to do that effectively. The environmentalists also found much that resonated with their views on the need to build sustainability into development. But among economists, myself included as a newly appointed director for economic policy, there was less enthusiasm. We did not see clearly how to operationalize the concept, we could not find strong evidence to link these sociocultural measures with economic growth in a convincing fashion, and the evidence that did exist—such as the Acemoglu-Robinson finding on the role of institutions—seemed to suggest that colonial traditions, which could not be readily changed in the present day, were a root cause of underdevelopment in some places.

Jim Wolfensohn presented his ideas to the World Bank Board in 1999 and received their formal endorsement. He started piloting the CDF in several World Bank client countries. The difficulties of changing behaviors, including among donors, were significant. An early evaluation of the CDF recounted a story of how wrangling among donors had meant that two years later the foundation stone for a building in Bolivia had yet to be laid.

Within two years, the world took on a new development agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), based on a tightly focused set of human development targets, a far cry from the more expansive CDF.

Fast forward to 2013. The U.N. was trying to develop a plan of action for what would replace the MDGs upon their expiry in 2015. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a high-level panel to advise him, and the co-chairs of that panel—President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and Prime Minister Cameron of the U.K.—asked me to head up a secretariat to support them and to write a report summarizing their discussions. What emerged was a document that became a basis for a multicountry negotiation culminating in the universal adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

Which brings us back to Jim Wolfensohn. Anyone reading the U.N. declaration “Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development” would be struck by the parallels to Jim’s CDF. He had already articulated all the basic elements that are now to be found in the SDGs. Of course, there are some differences—the concept of universality perhaps the most important—but the most important principles are retained.

With hindsight, it is clear that Jim Wolfensohn’s antennae had picked out the core elements of sustainable development fully two decades before the rest of the world came around to understanding them. He was a remarkable man, often ahead of his time.

Jim Wolfensohn passed away on November 25, 2020.

Jim Wolfensohn established the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution in 2006, with a five-year mandate. Brookings launched a Center for Sustainable Development on October 21, 2020.