The World’s Banker

by Sebastian Mallaby

This is a very entertaining and very informative book about international development. This book is about James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, the World Bank itself, the largest institution charged with assisting the development of poorer countries, and the development challenges the Bank and Wolfensohn faced and how they met them. This is the book I would recommend as an introduction to contemporary development issues and how they are in fact addressed.

The book describes how “international development” is accomplished in reality. The World Bank is certainly a key example of where the “rubber hits the road:” the intersection of multi-country, very self-interested politics (including that of the United States), bureaucracy (of the World Bank, the developing countries, and others), personal ambition (of Wolfensohn and numerous others) and the grave problems of international development. Mallaby has given an excellent, and rarely if ever achieved, description of how this multidimensional process plays out in real life: how Wolfensohn, the Bank, the United States and other developing countries, and the developing nations and– last and possibly least– the people of the developing nations interacted to affect economic development in the last 10 years.

The book is extremely entertaining, in part because it follows Wolfensohn closely, and leaves in details that a more sanitized biography would omit. The story of how the President of Mali gave Wolfensohn a goat, and what became of the goat, is a classic tale, worth retelling to your children if you want them to become development specialists. Mallaby includes a great many informative details, quite a high number of them amusing. He also does an excellent job in describing the debate and political and bureaucratic struggle over development issues.

The first three chapters set out Wolfensohn’s life before the Bank, including a very successful career as an international banker and the highly political way in which he became World Bank president. These chapters also give a history of the Bank and development issues to that point. Each subsequent chapter up to the last, which is an evaluation of Wolfensohn’s career at the Bank (he will not be reappointed for a new term), describes a particular issue: the challenge of Africa, the World Bank’s role in Bosnia, corruption (and the World Bank blindness to it), the (partial) evolution from structural adjustment to participatory development thinking and the (lack of adequate) response to AIDS.

Mallaby has done an impressive job in weaving together many strands to tell the story of Wolfensohn and development during his tenure at the Bank.

Lane Vanderslice is Editor of Hunger Notes.

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