An equal measure of vanity and vision

The World's Banker
July 8, 2005

Howard Davies reads the verdict on James Wolfensohn: development strategy right but country-level tactics wrong.

As one Wolf replaces another at the World Bank, public attention inevitably focuses on "-owitz" rather than on "-ensohn". Bank staff in Washington and around the globe wait anxiously to discover whether their new boss will live down to his worrying reputation or instead prove the key to unlocking a fruitful relationship with their biggest shareholder, something achieved only intermittently over the past decade.

At the same time, Tony Blair's leadership of the G8 promises to put development, particularly in Africa, at the top of the agenda, though for now it is unclear what role the World Bank will be called on to play.

But whatever Paul Wolfowitz's plans for the future may be and whatever new role the G8 invite the World Bank to perform, the bank has at its disposal the plan created by James Wolfensohn, in office since Bill Clinton appointed him in 1995. So Sebastian Mallaby's book, which attempts an instant retrospective on "King James's" lengthy reign, is ideally timed.

Furthermore, while the focus of The World's Banker is inevitably on its outgoing president, Mallaby tries also to capture the nature of the changes made during the period to the institution itself, to its mission, character and management.

Let us start, though, with the man. Mallaby is not especially interested in Wolfensohn's early years, which spares us anecdotes of life growing up in Sydney in the 1940s - a relief, I think. Jim was born the son of a man who had been private secretary to James Rothschild, in London, but who lost in Australia most of the money he had made in England. Still, there was enough cash available to push young James through private schools and university in New South Wales, and for him to be trained to a high standard in fencing and the cello. He represented Australia at fencing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics but soon left Sydney to find fame and fortune, via a Harvard MBA.

After spells at a number of financial firms (now long defunct) in Australia he fetched up at Schroders, where he made a lot of money, and more contacts, particularly as head of its New York operations from 1970 onwards.

Ambition was never lacking in the Wolfensohn household, but Schroders, though impressed by his unsurpassed client skills, passed him over for the chair, preferring the Earl of Airlie. So Wolfensohn moved on to Salomon Brothers, where he became even richer, and, crucially, became an American.

Those two characteristics put him in line for senior jobs in Washington, and after almost landing the World Bank presidency when Robert McNamara left, his persistence finally paid off a decade later.

So far, so banal. Just another story of an Aussie conquering the world.

Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, Rolf Harris, Kylie Minogue - we've seen a few of them over the years. But Wolfensohn had bigger ideas. He was a man with a mission. He wanted to transform the bank, to revolutionise its management, to adopt an entirely new approach to development, to put the bank on the side of the poorest, to transform its relationships with non-governmental organisations and to perform as a concert cellist in Carnegie Hall with the finest pianists and orchestras in the world. (This last objective may not have featured prominently on his application form, but it came to take up a decent proportion of his time.) Mallaby's mission is to assess Wolfensohn's performance against these grandiose aims. In 20 hours of exclusive interviews, we are told, Wolfensohn has made his own verdict clear: a starred first, with oak leaves and bar. Mallaby is a little more nuanced in his judgment.

He would like to be a member of the Jim'll Fix It fan club, but cannot quite get around the downsides of his hero's aggressive immodesty. The most telling episode in the book (whose internal narrative at that point is sourced to Robert Wade of the London School of Economics) concerns an aborted project to move Chinese farmers in Qinghai province to an area that was - at least arguably - culturally Tibetan. The project itself looked attractive on its own terms. The farmers' new land was much more fertile than the old. The economic benefits were substantial. But the NGO community rebelled, along with every "Friend of Tibet". Though the project had been properly approved within the bank, Wolfensohn looked for scapegoats. Who had landed him in this mess?

According to Mallaby: "As the pace of this campaign mounted, so did Wolfensohn's fury. He counted himself a friend of the NGOs, a friend of the Dalai Lama... and certainly a friend of China; he hated the idea that it was impossible to be friends with everyone. He fretted that this screw-up might cost him his chance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and he fretted that his Hollywood connections would turn on him: Harrison Ford's wife was close to the Tibetans."

Harrison was a near-neighbour of Wolfensohn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so that really mattered. No more fireside chats in their respective "cabins".

A review was ordered, but before it was completed, the project was pulled: the Chinese themselves resented the implied scrutiny of their internal affairs and decided they would rather not take the money. For Wolfensohn the timing was unlucky, in a way. Shortly afterwards, Ford left his wife for Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart, whose views on Tibetan cultural identity are not yet a matter of public record. If only Wolfensohn had had his ear closer to the ground in the bars in Jackson Hole, the future of Qinghai could have been very different.

For most of his time at the bank, though, Wolfensohn was a lucky president.

When the Bush Administration was gearing up to get rid of him (Paul O'Neill of the Treasury was notoriously immune to his charms), the Iraq War intervened. For once, the US actually needed the World Bank.

He was lucky, too, in that his management mistakes - and even in this generally sympathetic account we learn of many - never quite crystallised into the kind of crisis that would have finished his reign.

Wolfensohn, chronically unwilling to delegate, at times ran a campaign against his own staff. Several highly competent people brought in to help him, including Rachel Lomax (now a deputy governor of the Bank of England), quickly found it impossible to survive in the fraught atmosphere at the top of the institution and packed their bags. Mallaby's final verdict on his management style is negative: "The bank when he arrived was in need of a shake-up, but its troubles did not justify the hand-grenade treatment he administered."

But a World Bank president should not ultimately be judged by his impact on the staff at head office. The 64,000-euro question is whether he made the organisation more effective in tackling poverty.

The bank itself can produce 1,000 pages of statistics to prove that its cost-effectiveness has improved. Many NGOs would beg to differ, as - from a wholly different perspective - would the Bush Administration.

Mallaby does not pretend to be able to produce a definitive assessment. He thinks Wolfensohn's comprehensive development approach was directionally correct, indeed that it "was right for the bank as a whole, and right as a grand theory of human progress. After more than a decade of macroeconomic adjustment, it was time to broaden the development agenda."

But he questions the practical implementation on the ground, where the bank frequently found itself unable in practice to deliver on its strategy: "The comprehensive vision was wrong at the level of individual countries, where greater selectivity is necessary."

It is hard to improve on this verdict today, though in due course a more comprehensive assessment may be possible. But Mallaby is surely right to conclude by reminding us that the World Bank can ultimately be only what its shareholders want it to be. And the record of the Wolfensohn years is one of only intermittent support from the US, in particular, and sometimes outright hostility. "They like calling on the bank to act on this and that; they like denouncing it for failing to deliver. But so long as they veer schizophrenically between exhortation and contempt, it will be hard for the World Bank to be what it should be - the best source of development lending and advice there is for the world's neediest people."

And the verdict on Wolfensohn's final musical ambition? For his 70th birthday, he organised a Carnegie Hall concert in which he played with Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zuckerman, while Kofi Annan, Teddy Kennedy and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands delivered touching tributes. (Presumably Michael Jackson was busy with his lawyers, and Harrison and Calista must have left before dinner.) "There was something adorably brave in this, and something preposterously vain at the same time," says Mallaby, an observation that must be at least half right.

Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics.

The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations

Author - Sebastian Mallaby
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 462
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 300 10801 X.

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