Normally, when two Washington bulwarks spend more than USD 2 million for an authorised history, publication is marked by a bang, not a whimper. That´s why people in the economic development field are scratching their heads over the reception of The World Bank: Its First Half Century, a two-volume history authorised by the bank, published by the Brookings Institution and underwritten by both. To say that the 2,000 page tome has been greeted with reticence by the bank doesn´t quite capture its not-so-benign neglect.
The World Bank still has a vast mandate and considerable influence, even though anti-Communism – the primary geopolitical impulse for US participation – has evaporated, and the bank´s net annual lending of USD 7.4 billion represents only 2 to 3 percent of the total flow of capital to developing countries. Simply put, the bank is to economic development theology what the papacy is to Catholicism, complete with yearly encyclicals. The bank, with its 5,400 full-time employees, still leads and other lenders or donors follow. It is particularly instrumental in orienting officials and politicians in poorer countries to economic development, World Bank-style.
The authors´ integrity may have everything to do with the bank´s neglect of the book, a standoffishness so marked that it suggests bank management surreptitiously hopes the history will go unread. (Brookings, very much the junior partner in underwriting the project, has promoted it through its usual channels.) There was an early consensus that at least one of the principal historians ought to hail from the world the bank is ostensibly dedicated to improving. So in addition to John Lewis, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, a “South” economist, Richard Webb, was recruited. Webb, a Peruvian, is an expert on income distribution.
Webb took the writing of the bank´s history very seriously. He had been invested with a great public trust – to write an enduring account of a highly influential international institution during the second half of the twentieth century – and he proceeded accordingly. Together with an Indian national, Devesh Kapur, whose indis pensability caused him to be promoted to full co-authorship, Webbwent about the job thoroughly, combing the bank´s archives for internal memorandums and transcripts of meetings, even seeking out the private papers of retired bank officers.
The result of this seven-year labour is a remarkably candid and balanced institutional history, and a sobering one, too. Some villains in the story work at the bank, but by no means all. Loan recipients, nongovernmental organisations and the creditor nations are not exempt from scrutiny, least of all the United States, which has been inordinately responsible, as the largest shareholder, for what has gone right and wrong. In the post-Cold War environment, moreover, these authors don´t have to be as circumspect as were two earlier co-authors who wrote an institutional history in 1973. The subsequent effort contains unflinching looks at US unilateralism and those occasions when the bank´s lending policies and priorities were bent to align with Washington´s.
A chapter on the greening of the bank, written by Professor Robert Wade, now with the Russell Sage Foundation, is almost worth the steep price, USD 160 for both volumes. Wade offers an unusually vivid depiction of how, over a period of 25 years, the bank was alternately pressured and embarrassed into taking ecological factors into account. The chapter is one of the best exposes ever of the bank´s inner workings. Wade describes how NGOs hammered away at the bank´s deeply rooted obfuscations and how a system of internal incentives rewarded staff who reliably moved projects forward for board approval amid the bank´s indifference to results achieved on the ground.
All this seems reason enough to promote discussion and debate over the bank´s history. But the reception the bank has given its own authorised examination smacks of its mindset on after-the-fact evaluations of its projects. What happened yesterday doesn´t matter because “we´re doing things better now.” Current World Bank president James Wolfensohn has acknowledged that management changes are needed and has vigorously shaken up a sprawling bureaucracy. But if indifference to bank history is also part of his attitude, Wolfensohn´s vaunted re-invention is likely to be little more than a makeover.