Thursday, April 03, 2008

Free the World Bankers

My colleague Donna wrote a great April Fool's blog post over at GlobalGoodness announcing that Mari and I had decided to go back to the World Bank.  She quoted me as saying:

“Innovation is highly overrated....Mari and I are looking forward to being back in an environment where the rules are clear and the work is predictable."

This was firmly tongue in cheek, and even those who initially fell for it realized the obvious joke.  We all had a good laugh.

However, recent conversations with former World Bank colleagues reminded me that for them this joke cuts pretty close to the bone.  Despite its problems, the Bank is full of extraordinarily talented people who want to do good in the world.  But the Bank's organizational structure, governance, and incentives suck the energy and creativity out of its staff.  As a result, the Bank's positive impact is far, far less than it should be.  

People who come to the World Bank with energy and new ideas gradually learn that they must spend their time dealing with bureaucratic processes and compliance issues.  At the end of the day, they are exhausted and lower their sights.  If somehow they summon the energy and courage to try something innovative, there is rarely any positive feedback or support from the management or board.  They may even be sidelined.

The culture of the Bank is heavily influenced by its president.  After the troubles of recent years, the appointment of Robert Zoellick was greeted with high hopes, since he is known to be a highly competent international diplomat and negotiator.  

Regrettably, those hopes have not been fulfilled.  Though things have calmed down since the departure of Paul Wolfowitz, there has been little innovation in the Zoellick era.  He is proceeding very cautiously and conservatively.  

Word on the street is that Zoellick is hoping to use the Bank presidency as a springboard to become Secretary of State under John McCain.  In the meantime, he does not want to take any chances by rocking the boat.  

I hope this is not true.  Because no boat needs rocked more than the World Bank.