Opinion

Felix Salmon

Zoellick’s failure of nerve

By Felix Salmon
April 6, 2011

When I talked to Chrystia Freeland on Monday about World Bank chief Bob Zoellick’s big speech on the Middle East and North Africa today, I said I was looking for two things: concrete promises to do specific things, on the one hand, and a recognition, on the other hand, that the World Bank was working for the struggling citizens of these countries rather than their entrenched elites. The revolutions in the region have shown that politics is inextricably bound up with economics, and that you can’t affect the latter without dealing with the former.

I don’t think I’m going to get what I wanted. Here’s the closest that Zoellick comes to a policy-related promise:

I suggest it is now time for the World Bank to examine, with its Board and shareholders, whether the Bank needs new capabilities or facilities that could leverage support from countries, foundations, and others to strengthen the capacity of CSOs working on accountability and transparency in service delivery. We could give priority to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. We could back this work with seed capital, and with knowledge exchange and research aimed at improving the enabling environment for social accountability.

Too political?

No, Bob, this isn’t too political. Instead, it’s not remotely political enough. Setting up a committee with the World Bank board and shareholders will achieve precisely nothing. The World Bank “board and shareholders” comprises precisely the entrenched elites who have the most to lose from popular emancipation. To take an extreme example, the Saudi royal family are World Bank shareholders; I doubt they’re going to be particularly enthusiastic about accountability, transparency, and the like.

This is precisely the sort of issue where Zoellick should just go ahead and do something, daring his board to slap him down: asking forgiveness can work, while asking permission just means certain bureaucratic sclerosis. Zoellick had his opportunity to lead, here. Instead, he’s chosen to kowtow to the representatives of the very regimes who are most at risk. Which is an entirely predictable shame.

Update: In the Q&A period following the speech, in response to a question along these very lines, Zoellick first said that maybe the work could be done bilaterally, by the UK or the US or even by various foundations. Then he said there were “questions” — which he would take to his shareholders — “whether the bank should have a role in this and if so what form.” And he continued by declaring that he’s actually agnostic on these issues, saying “I’m not sure I have a view of whether there is a role for the Bank”. Weak.

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