World Bank's cultural revolution

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The Independent Online
James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, promised yesterday that his programme for reforming the giant institution would show dramatic results before next year's annual meeting, writes Diane Coyle.

Speaking at the end of his first year in the job, he said: "In 12 months from now you will see a vastly different World Bank. We are trying damn hard to turn around a 50-year-old culture."

The bank would concentrate on its results in terms of social and economic indicators as well as financial performance, he said. In other words, it will measure its achievements by how far it reduces poverty rather than how much it lends - something that critics of the world's biggest development organisation have long advocated.

"That, to me, is a revolution," said Mr Wolfensohn. Oxfam this week issued a report card giving him a B- grade for his first year's efforts - something he took as an endorsement from the charity. Oxfam was unrealistic about the speed with which the 10,000-strong bank could be altered, he said.

The World Bank is part-way through a comprehensive poverty assessment of all its borrower countries. It is particularly concerned to go behind the per capita economic statistics to look at income distribution. Basic infrastructure, health and education were its top priorities, with a new emphasis on projects benefiting as many people as possible.

There are 1.2 billion people in the world with no access to an adequate water supply, 2 billion with no power and 2 billion who have never made a telephone call. Mr Wolfensohn said there would also be a new focus on rural development as three-quarters of the world's poor lived in rural areas. He has already made significant progress on making the bank less bureaucratic and giving its officials more individual responsibility and authority. Lending projects need to go through two stages rather than five to get approval. In some areas of the bank, staff have had to reapply for their jobs, while 250 people have been sent on management training courses.