World Bank President Robert Zoellick '75 Prepares to Step Down, Reflects on His Legacy

Daily Mail (United Kingdom): How Robert Zoellick beat World Bank hoodoo

By Alex Brummer

Most presidents' lives at the World Bank, to paraphrase Enoch Powell's judgement of politicians, end in failure.

Bob Zoellick ['75], the Republican trouble-shooter and history buff who has run the Washington-based development institution for the last five years, believes he has beaten the hoodoo.  

In a valedictory interview in his airy office overlooking the grassy Mall which runs from the White House to Capitol Hill, a relaxed Zoellick expressed confidence that his tenure will provide him with a springboard to even greater things.

Initially, he expects to spend some time in academe at Harvard and possibly in Britain. He is weighing an offer from Kings College in London to help establish a new school that seeks to link security and economic issues.

But there is no doubt that if Mitt Romney's campaign for the White House were to progress well, Zoellick - who in the past has served in secondary Cabinet offices - would have his eye on the US Treasury, or even better, the State Department.

Zoellick, a lanky figure with a toothbrush moustache, believes that the stint at the Bank has burnished his reputation...

"We did some very innovative things on trade finance and bank recapitalisation," Zoellick says. In some respects he thinks the greatest achievement was overcoming inertia.

"International institutions, like government institutions, can be bureaucratic. So you need somebody who keeps pushing, pushing and pushing."

The most recent phase of his leadership has focused on taking a can-opener to the Bank's tendency to intellectual aloofness and pry it open. "I've tried to put a focus on this results and openness agenda."

Instead of the Bank's old top-down culture, when it told developing countries that it knew best, it is letting what Zoellick calls the client decide...

And instead of building walls around the Bank's intellectual property, such as its research and empirical results on the ground, it is offering universities, NGOs and anyone interested in development and the issues open access to decades of field work...

A key feature of Zoellick's leadership has been his embrace of what he calls 'fiscal conservatism' which has been helpful in prising funds out of the US Congress and other reluctant administrations...

Zoellick takes pride in the fact that he and Hank Paulson (the former Treasury Secretary) created the idea of climate investment funds which have now raised more than $7 billion from around the world mobilising 'a total of about $50 billion to do practical things on energy efficiency, technology development and forestation'.

Zoellick's lecture on how modern financial techniques can be used in development looked to be aimed at his successor with his more traditional aid background...

In Brazil and Mexico they have developed something called conditional cash transfer. They give money (welfare in Western terms) to the poorest people in the community but only on the condition that you send your children to school and that the families get basic health check-ups.

"It's probably done more for women's health than anything in the history of Mexico and for a cost of around half-a-per-cent of GDP these programmes cover 15pc to 20pc of the people at the bottom of the pile. If you think about U.S., U.K., or even Continental welfare programmes, this is pretty damned efficient."

As Bank president, Zoellick has played to his strengths on security issues, involving the Bank in post-conflict assistance in Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Afghanistan and strengthening the Bank's bona fides.

He has discarded the heart strings narrative of the aid lobby for a more practical alternative. Whether that legacy proves durable is an open question.