Hope and Fear at the World Bank

May 17, 2011

It was early March and Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner of International Cooperation Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, was traveling in Asia. Her plan was to attend a 7.5 magnitude earthquake simulation that would hit Indonesia and generate a tsunami. A few things, however, changed in her itinerary: The destination turned out to be Japan, the earthquake was 9.0 and it not only generated a huge tsunami, but also a nuclear catastrophe. Plus, it was real.

“Usually our fears are bigger than reality. In this case our reality was worse than our fears,” Georgieva said recently at a World Bank panel on the climate, food and financial crises the world is facing today and the way they all intertwine. Georgieva’s strong Slavic optimism brightened the gloomy panel, but the data she threw in didn’t back up her positive view:

Hold on for a second. How can these disasters have such a devastating impact on us when cutting-edge technology, extensive knowledge and interconnectedness are here to help us mitigate them?

This question left the representatives of Uganda – who followed the event via webcast — puzzled. So they raised the simplest but toughest question for the panel:

“We seem to know the problem and we also seem to know the answer. The question is then: Why are we not responding?”

No one on the panel disagreed with World Bank’s managing director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iewala, who wasn’t shy to name those she blamed and to evoke “the fear of God” in them:

Stronger political will is what the world needs to handle global crises and to become a more sustainable place where the human race can live, the panel in Washington concluded. So then, “How do we compel governments to take correct decisions?” asked Trevor Manuel, the former finance minister of South Africa.

The World Bank is hopeful that it will soon have the answer to that question, but it also fears the future. This combination of fear and hope reminded Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s Department of Environment, of a scene from this year’s World Economic Forum in which Desmond Tutu had so many laughing:

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