Outlook: World Bank

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The Independent Online
YOU WOULD be hard pushed to find a better dressed or more prosperous- looking group of people than the 9,000 or so staff of the World Bank. They differ little from the fortunate employees of many other gilded international bureaucracies, of course, but because the Bank's increasingly vocal purpose is meant to be that of reducing poverty, the designer suits stand out a little more sharply.

The infamous excesses of Champagne-class travel and lavish Washington cocktail parties have been reined in a little in recent years, but this is still an organisation a world apart from the one it is meant to be treating.

As yesterday's annual World Development Report, and the World Bank's annual report due later today make plain, there is more poverty than ever. Whatever it was the Bank and other organisations were doing in the past, it hasn't succeeded. Indeed, great chunks of money have been utterly squandered. The question is whether the new ideas will be any more effective.

The rhetoric is certainly changing under the presidency of James Wolfensohn, if nothing else. There is a sharper focus on poverty-reduction rather than the abstraction of "economic development". There is also a greater political sophistication when it comes to dealing with unpalatable regimes. For about the first time in the Bank's history, it emphasises the importance of listening to people at the grassroots and, importantly, of rooting out corruption.

In the past, the World Bank has Outlook: tacitly colluded in this corruption, contributing to the Third World debt problem it now wants to solve by lending freely to dictators and their cronies, people who were all the while lining their Swiss bank accounts with our Western money.

Now it wants to fight for the little guy. Whether this is possible in an organisation which has to maintain diplomatic relations with its members - national governments of all types, good, incompetent and downright unpleasant - remains to be seen. Economic growth blooms from within, supported by local enterprise, stable institutions, the rule of law and sound public policy. In the end countries have to develop themselves; it cannot be grafted on from outside by people whose idea of hardship is flying economy.

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