August 02, 2011
Sebastian Mallaby, The World's Banker
Posted by David Zaring

You have to appreciate an effort to tell the story of an international financial institution, in this case the World Bank, through the lens of a biography of its 1994-2004-or-so president, James Wolfensohn. Bank presidents, after all, even when their bank is more of a development agency than a financial intermediary, don't spend their days doing the most interesting things.  Wolfensohn, who was a notable investment banker before he became a World Banker, and who took up the cello at age 40 and got good enough to persuade fantastic musicians to play with him, admittedly comes close.  But it's still a tall ask.

So in that sense, kudos to this aging book; the IFIs need more such treatments.  Mallaby is pretty deregulatory - he just wrote a book on hedge funds arguing that they were wonderful and stable, and this book makes a point of decrying the NGO busybodies whom, he thinks, are slowing the World Bank, and the course of poverty alleviation more generally, down.

It's something the post-Deng Chinese government, the greatest poverty alleviation institution of all time, would probably agree with.  But much of The World's Banker is a now dated tick-tock.  You want to read the parts of the first chapter that don't focus on Wolfensohn.  They describe how the bank moved away from its original mission of European reconstruction via government loans at almost market rates, to the mostly-development-focused institution that it is today largely as if they were policy decisions by the prior presidents of the institutions.  There's no question that the World Bank could have closed up shop long ago if it had limited its focus to war reconstruction, which was its original purpose.  Its pivot to become a global development agency made it a handy cold warrior, and a useful participant in the post cold war as well.

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