Bank chief’s exit illustrates failure to right a ship that has lost its way
For the head of the World Bank to quit unexpectedly would have been big news under any circumstances. But the reason outgoing president Jim Yong Kim gave for his resignation on Monday is even more revealing. Kim said he was leaving the world’s most influential development and infrastructure-building agency to join a private-sector infrastructure investment fund because he believed “this is the path through which I will be able to make the largest impact on major global issues like climate change and the infrastructure deficit in emerging markets”. One can hardly imagine a more potent indictment of the World Bank’s role in the developing world than having its head vote with his feet.
The truth is that Kim isn’t wrong. The World Bank has simply not been effective enough at what is supposed to be its core task: mobilising funds for infrastructure investment in poorer countries.
The financial gap that emerging markets have to bridge is huge; between $1-trillion and $1.5-trillion (R13-trillion and R20-trillion) annually is needed for investment in infrastructure. And how much can multilateral development banks raise in total? All of them together — not just the World Bank but also regional multilateral development banks such as the Asian
Development Bank — can spend about $116bn a year, of which $45bn goes into infrastructure investment.
Now, one response to this problem could be to capitalise these banks better. But, as we’re likely to discover in the battle between the Trump administration and the rest of the world that is now inevitable after
Kim’s resignation, the US isn’t terribly interested in multilateral institutions such as the World Bank. (This is a striking contrast to China, which is looking to scale up the institutions it dominates.)
So where will the rest of the money have to come from? Well, from our pockets, that’s where. It’s savers across the world whose money will need to be sent overseas to where it can best be put to work — in the developing world. Private finance will have to step in and put just a fraction of the $90-plus trillion of rich-country savings into emerging-market infrastructure.
This is where the World Bank has fallen short. Back when it was set up, in the 1940s, the bank was supposed to work closely with the private sector, not to make grants or loans of its own money.
Henry Morgenthau, the US Treasury secretary back when the Bretton Woods institutions were being designed, was pretty clear about the bank’s role: “The primary aim of such an agency should be to encourage private capital to go abroad for productive investment by sharing the risks of private investors in large ventures … The most important of the bank’s operations will be to guarantee loans in order that investors may have a reasonable assurance of safety in placing their funds abroad.”
That isn’t how things panned out. In fact, in 2013, less than 2% of the total funds mobilised by all development finance institutions took the form of loan guarantees.
Instead of working with the private sector, the World Bank has become a slack, bloated, public-sector bureaucracy that survives by flattering its host governments and playing it safe with donors. Most of its lending is direct to governments. That is great for all concerned: the bank’s staff monitor the lending process; most need minimal specialist skills. Donor governments use the bank as a tool of foreign policy, and recipient governments control where the cash goes — frequently their own state-owned companies.
There have been efforts to change this lazy equilibrium in recent years. Since early in Kim’s term, the World Bank and other multilateral development agencies have attempted to de-prioritise concessional loans as an instrument and raise the profile of guarantees. Kim’s premature departure, though, tells us all we need to know about how successful that effort has been. — Bloomberg
The World Bank has simply not been effective enough