Wolfensohn Refocused World Bank's Mission James Wolfensohn steps down as president of the World Bank Tuesday. Over the past decade, Wolfensohn revamped the way the lending institution did business, switching to a country-based, hands-on approach that focused more on human development, health and education projects in the battle against poverty.
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Wolfensohn Refocused World Bank's Mission

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Wolfensohn Refocused World Bank's Mission

Wolfensohn Refocused World Bank's Mission

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The end of an era today at the World Bank. James Wolfensohn steps down as president. He's held the post for 10 years. Tomorrow, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz will take his place. James Wolfensohn led the World Bank through a period of turmoil, protests and big changes to the way the bank operates. NPR's Kathleen Schalch has this look back at Wolfensohn's tenure.


James Wolfensohn is a compact man with a round face, rumpled silver hair and an impish smile. He was different from his predecessors and right away he raised eyebrows. The first thing he did as president was leave the bank's elegant Washington headquarters and set off for Mali, one of the poorest countries in West Africa. Staffer Linda McGuinness(ph) was on edge, especially when the jet-lagged World Bank president was surprised very early the first morning by a troupe of traditional Malian praise singers. They pounded their drums just outside his window and burst into a song.

Ms. LINDA McGUINNESS (World Bank Staffer): Loud, jarring, at times atonal and with a lead singer whose voice was screeching the praises of Jim Wolfensohn.

SCHALCH: McGuinness had seen other dignitaries greeted this way. Most smiled stiffly and ducked into their cars as fast as they could. Wolfensohn emerged beaming.

Ms. McGUINNESS: He enjoyed the music fully, and the woman who was the lead singer threw a scarf around his neck. And rather than flinch or cringe, he joined in the celebration and began dancing with her. And the Malians were completely enamored by him from the start.

SCHALCH: Wolfensohn was fired up as well. He had taken over a 50-year-old international lending institution that was dispirited and under siege. Critics on the right pointed to the private capital surging into developing countries. They said bank lending was wasteful and no longer needed. Critics on the left said the bank was doing more harm than good. They accused it of everything from funding ill-considered roads and dams and prescribing overly harsh austerity measures to committing environmental depredation and cultural genocide. Many demanded that the bank simply be shut down.

Wolfensohn believed it could be transformed. In this 1996 interview, he said he wanted to bank to break out of its old habits of crunching numbers and meeting with finance ministers and train its sights on understanding and finally dealing with the crushing burden of poverty.

(Soundbite of 1996 interview)

Mr. JAMES WOLFENSOHN (President, World Bank): What is stopping us from doing it? I call that the glass wall, and that is either bureaucracy or history or distrust. It's like looking in a store window at something you want to buy. You've got to go in and get it.

SCHALCH: Wolfensohn shook things up. He reorganized the staff. He hired anthropologists, experts on biodiversity and gender. He listened to the bank's critics. Longtime aide Caroline Anstey remembers a pair of protesters who were denouncing a proposed dam in western China. They had managed to scale the front of the bank's headquarters and were in the process of unfurling a banner.

Ms. CAROLINE ANSTEY (Aide to James Wolfensohn): And I had a message that Mr. Wolfensohn would like to meet with these two young men. And we conveyed the message to them, and they, sure enough, climbed down and met with him. And I think they had a very vigorous debate for a couple of hours.

SCHALCH: Wolfensohn broke taboos on matters like debt relief and corruption. Before he arrived, corruption in developing countries was the C-word, too politically sensitive to discuss. Wolfensohn created a department to fight it. He lectured everyone about the need to educate girls.

Unidentified Woman and Children: (Singing in foreign language in unison)

SCHALCH: In poor countries like Honduras, old criticisms and new sensitivities have morphed into new policies and projects, lots of them. In the past five years, Honduras has gotten more than a thousand new so-called community-based schools. The second- and third-graders at this one near the town of Copan wave their hands above their hands and bob up and down happily as they sing. They're mainly taught in Spanish, but they're also getting lessons in the language of their ancestors, Chorti.

Group of Children: (Foreign language spoken in unison)

SCHALCH: This idea came from the parents, according to Joe Owen, the bank's country director for Honduras.

Mr. JOE OWEN (Honduras Country Director, World Bank): The big change that I see in the bank today is a lot more listening to the client, being much more closer to the client. In fact, two-thirds of our country directors, who are the key decision-makers, are based in the countries themselves and not in Washington. So there's a lot more access and closeness to the client which, I think, makes a big difference in terms of the quality of the projects that we're doing.

SCHALCH: A few dusty miles away, the bank is funding major expansions and improvements at an ancient Mayan archaeological site. And to make sure the poor actually benefit, it's teaching farmers to grow food for tourists and giving local artisans grinding machines to carve obsidian and jade into Mayan-looking jewelry.

(Soundbite of grinding machine; people walking through weeds)

SCHALCH: Just down the road, the bank has gotten down into the weeds, literally. Men dressed in bright orange vests clear tall grass along the roadside. It's a microenterprise owned by the workers, including Santos Manuel Vasquez(ph).

Mr. SANTOS MANUEL VASQUEZ (Worker): (Through Translator) Now that we work for the microenterprise, we can live better. I've been able to build a house for my family. I couldn't do that before.

SCHALCH: Some, including Sebastian Mallaby, contend that the bank's gone a bit overboard. Mallaby's written a book about Wolfensohn called "The World's Banker."

Mr. SEBASTIAN MALLABY (Author, "The World's Banker"): He didn't see why the World Bank should stay out of anything. It should get involved not only in all the classic development challenges like health projects, education projects, infrastructure projects, advice on macroeconomics, but it also should get involved in religion and its impact on development, on cultural issues and their potential alleged impact on development. So he broadened the agenda to the point where people felt it went way too far and the bank lost any semblance of focus.

SCHALCH: A new internal review says the bank should re-emphasize projects that provide power and transportation and clear away other big hurdles to economic growth. But even critics concede that James Wolfensohn changed the bank in ways few people believed possible. Many bank officials, including Caroline Anstey, say they're grateful.

Ms. ANSTEY: I think he's taken an institution that always had a phenomenal brain but had less of a heart and a soul, and I think he's given it that heart and the soul.

SCHALCH: At his last press conference, Wolfensohn was asked about regrets.

Mr. WOLFENSOHN: What do I regret? I guess I regret I couldn't do it quicker. I probably could have been nicer at some times, according to some observers.

SCHALCH: Wolfensohn said the challenge that will face his successor, Paul Wolfowitz, is applying the lessons the bank's learned on a much larger scale.

Mr. WOLFENSOHN: You know, we've got hundreds of projects where we can say we've done this, that or the other and helped 50,000 people or 500,000 school kids or a million people with AIDS or something, and you feel terrific about it. But then you discover that there are 40 million people with AIDS, or that the real challenge is 1,200,000,000 people under a dollar a day, or two billion more people coming onto the planet in the next 25 years in developing countries.

SCHALCH: James Wolfensohn rose and walked away as he often does, bent forward, his head almost bowed. But not like a man who's been worn down; more like a man who's still in a hurry. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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