A swiftly moving tale of what goes on behind the vaults at the World Bank, an institution led by a vigorous, cantankerous, and polarizing boss.
Australian ex-pat Jim Wolfensohn, writes Washington Post staffer Mallaby, is a “screamer, schemer, seducer; Olympian, musician, multimillionaire; by no means a saint but by any standards a fantastic force of nature.” Having survived an excessively bumpy road from The City and Wall Street to Washington, financial mastermind Wolfensohn was in the habit, early on in his tenure, of grabbing passerby executives and wondering aloud why they were still on the staff—when, that is, he wasn’t throwing tantrums at his aides and otherwise offending the grim and gray economists of the Bank. Mallaby takes a breezy, human-interest approach to all this, as seems fitting with such a larger-than-life “outsized character pitted against outsized problems.” But what is best about this very good work is not its cast of high-flying characters, well handled though they are, but its enthusiastic effort to personify the World Bank, which is a very strange thing indeed; it lends out some $20 billion a year to poor and developing nations, is thoroughly politicized and heavily lobbied, “has more intellectual juice” than almost any other development organization in the world, and seems ready to break into civil war at any moment. Wolfensohn came to a more genteel bank from the Kennedy Center, which he had restored to financial health, and immediately set its staff spinning with new mandates, some of them failures, some of them magnificently noble, such as his efforts to end corruption in the Third World. That project failed, too; as Indonesian dictator Suharto told Wolfensohn, “You know, what you regard as corruption in your part of the world, we regard as family values.” Yet for all his difficulties, Wolfensohn has set the Bank on a much-needed new course, even if, Mallaby concludes, “its troubles did not justify the hand-grenade treatment he administered.”
A worthy essay in institutional dynamics as much as financial history and international development. Sure to be widely read inside the Beltway.