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posted 6-5-2003

James D. Wolfensohn Magazine InterviewA magazine opens to the heartbreaking image of an emaciated child longing for food, medicine, warmth and the promise of a future, and the page is quickly turned. A television commercial shows the poignant picture of an HIV-positive child who is clinging to life and the channel is quickly changed. A conversation turns to world events, a child who has lost both his legs to a landmine accident, and the subject is quickly dropped. We don’t want to read it. We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to talk about it.

Even if we want to pretend this level of poverty, of disease, of hopelessness doesn’t exist, it does—and it’s not about to go away either.

Fortunately, there are people that read, see, talk and even live among these images vowing to make a difference. To the dedicated staff of the World Bank, these innocents, victims of grave circumstance, serve as a poignant reminder of the work that lies ahead. To the layman, the Bank is an institution founded to provide financial assistance to underdeveloped countries around the world. To those who know the Bank and the breadth of its mission, financial assistance is only the beginning. Not just the feeding, but the education of every child in the world is a mission of the Bank’s—so unfathomable in its magnitude that its undertaking has never been done before. Finding an ending to the AIDS epidemic, a disease which currently affects 41 million people, is another of the otherwise daunting charges set forth by the Bank. These are only three of the myriad of challenges that the Bank has accepted in its quest to eradicate poverty and bring peace, hope and a future to those around the world whose geography or misfortune have left them powerless.

Founded in 1944 and comprised of 184 member countries, the World Bank Group is one of the world’s largest sources of development assistance. In the last year, the Bank provided $19.5 billion in loans to its client countries and is now working in more than 100 developing economies, bringing a mix of finance and ideas to improve living standards and eliminate the worst forms of poverty. To help developing countries on a path of stable, sustainable and equitable growth, the Bank works with government agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to formulate assistance strategies. The Bank’s main focus is helping the poorest people and the poorest countries. This is accomplished particularly through basic health and education, poverty reduction, helping governments deliver quality services, protecting the environment and supporting private business development.

In developing countries, life expectancy has increased from 55 to 65 years, the number of literate adults has doubled, the total number of children in primary school has risen from 411 million to 681 million and infant mortality has been reduced by 50 percent. Over the past generation, more progress has been made in reducing poverty and raising living standards than during any other period in history. Despite these impressive statistics, their work is far from done and massive development challenges remain. Of the 4.7 billion people who live in the 100 countries that are World Bank clients, three billion live on less than $2 a day and 1.2 billion on less than $1 a day. Nearly three million people—two million of them children—in developing countries die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases. One hundred thirteen million children are not in school and 1.5 billion do not have clean water to drink.

Effective poverty reduction strategies and poverty-focused lending are central to achieving the Bank’s objectives. The Bank is helping countries to attract and retain private investment, and with the Bank’s support, governments are reforming their overall economies and strengthening banking systems.

By tradition, the World Bank’s president is a national of the largest shareholder, the United States. Born in Australia in 1933 and now a naturalized US citizen, James D. Wolfensohn is the World Bank Group’s ninth president since 1946 and only the third president in World Bank history to serve a second five-year term. In a quest to gain firsthand experience of the challenges facing the World Bank and its 184 member countries, he has traveled to more than 100 countries since becoming president in 1995.

During his travels, Wolfensohn has not only visited development projects supported by the World Bank, but he has also met with the Bank’s government clients as well as with representatives from business, labor, media, non-governmental organizations, religious and women’s groups, students and teachers. In the process, he has taken the initiative in forming new strategic partnerships between the Bank and the governments it serves, the private sector, civil society, regional development banks and the UN.

In 1996, together with the International Monetary Fund, Wolfensohn initiated the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative as the first comprehensive debt reduction program to address the needs of the world’s poorest, most heavily indebted countries. Two years later, he led a global review of the HIPC Initiative, to assess its progress and identify ways to make the Initiative deeper, broader and faster. This review culminated with an official endorsement to double the amount of relief, make more countries eligible for assistance and speed up the process. In January 1999, Wolfensohn then introduced the Comprehensive Development Framework, an approach that places the country front and center and focuses on building stronger partnerships to reduce poverty. The CDF is also meant to enhance the Strategic Compact, a major reform program in the Bank that Wolfensohn launched to improve the institution’s effectiveness in fighting poverty, and to meet the needs of a rapidly changing global economy.

Prior to joining the Bank, Wolfensohn was an international investment banker. His last position was as President and Chief Executive Officer of James D. Wolfensohn Inc., his own investment firm set up in 1981 to advise major US and international corporations. Before setting up his own company, Wolfensohn held a series of senior positions in finance at Salomon Brothers in New York, Schroders Ltd. in London, J. Henry Schroders Banking Corporation in New York and Darling & Co. of Australia.

Throughout his career, Wolfensohn has also closely involved himself in a wide range of cultural and volunteer activities, especially in the performing arts. In 1970, he became involved in New York’s Carnegie Hall, first as a board member and later as Chairman of the Board, during which time he led its successful effort to restore the landmark New York building. He is now Chairman Emeritus of Carnegie Hall. In 1990, Wolfensohn became Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. On January 1, 1996, he was elected Chairman Emeritus.

Wolfensohn has been President of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, Director of the Business Council for Sustainable Development, and served both as Chairman of the Finance Committee and as Director of the Rockefeller Foundation and of the Population Council and as member of the Board of Rockefeller University.

Currently, in addition to serving as President of the World Bank Group, he is Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Wolfensohn is also an Honorary Trustee of the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Century Association in New York.

He holds a BA and LLB from the University of Sydney and an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. Before attending Harvard, he was a lawyer for an Australian law firm, served as an Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and was a member of the 1956 Australian Olympic Fencing Team. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society. He has been the recipient of many awards for his volunteer work, including the first David Rockefeller Prize of the Museum of Modern Art in New York for his work for culture and the arts.

In May 1995, he was awarded an Honorary Knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to the arts and he has been decorated by the Governments of Australia, France, Germany, Morocco and Norway.

During a recent interview with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper, Wolfensohn discusses how he became involved with the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, where the Bank is today and how he plans to address the issue of disability and accessibility on a global scale.

Chet Cooper: What was your relationship with Multiple Sclerosis prior to joining the World Bank?

James D. Wolfensohn: My relationship with Multiple Sclerosis started when Jacqueline du Pré, who was a great cellist, contracted the disease over 20 years ago. Although I’d had friends with MS before that, I was particularly close to Jackie. My personal interest then converted into an institutional interest when Sylvia Lawry, the founder of the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, asked me to become president, which I did in the early ‘80s; I took on that job for five years. There I learned both about MS and the problems associated with disabilities. Also in the mid-‘80s, together with Queen Sylvia of Sweden, I ran a conference in Bellagio, Italy on information about technical aids for those with disabilities. She and I invited leaders from around the world to talk about issues relating to the interchange of information on technical assistance that could be provided to people with disabilities. We discovered, to our surprise, a complete mess in the global community [laughs]—nobody talking to anybody, different standards and descriptions and no common database. I think we were helpful in getting that started. Obviously since that time I’ve retained great interest because once you become aware of the issues—you can’t forget them.

CC: When we last talked during the Conference on Disability and Development, you posed a challenge to the Bank. How is the Bank addressing these issues?

JW: I think the important thing is that we’re putting together a team to focus on the issues surrounding disability with Judith Heumann—who I think by any measure is a leader in this field—running it. We have created an internal team, rather than simply working with outside consultants, to essentially demonstrate our regard for the issues of disability. We see it not as a luxury or something that is added on, but necessary because persons with disabilities are part of the main community. I can liken this a little to when we started to press the issue of gender discrimination—at the time, it was a male dominated institution interested only in issues of men. That transition has happened over the last 20 or 30 years and now this transition, which has gone more slowly, seems to be similar and needs to be addressed in relation to the issues of disabilities. We’ve also started forming regional working groups. With Judy here you can be certain that our activities will be both mainline inside the Bank and also reaching out. As a matter of fact, at this moment, Judy is currently in India looking at our operations there; this has gone beyond the idea phase to implementation.

CC: Do you foresee a time coming when the Bank will incorporate accessibility issues into the loan program?

JW: Yes, there are a lot of things that we can do in relation to lending that have not been done in the past, without a huge change in procedures. For example, we can incorporate the set of guidelines that are currently being worked on to include having regard to accessibility requirements, and the particular needs of persons with disabilities, as an automatic element in any construction project. It can become just a normal part of the effort. What I’m anxious to do is to make it a part of life, that if you’re doing a project—it has to be accessible. In many cases there is no opposition to this in our institution. It’s just that a lot of fairly simple procedures were not adequately included at the beginning. It’s mainly a question of awareness and changing practices.

CC: Do you know of other development banks that have a program similar to what is being initiated at the World Bank?

JW: I am not aware of any. I’ve asked Judy to get in touch with all the regional development banks. She’s made contact and offered them the experience that we’ve had to try to ensure that there are cohesive standards and a cohesive approach throughout the development banking community.

CC: The World Bank will then serve as a guiding light to the regional banks… That’s a great idea. What key component was lacking in the development strategies?

JW: Consistency. The banks must ensure there is total application of what really amounts to common sense requirements, and I think that’s the direction we’re moving. I’m actually quite pleased to get reactions from people like the Asian Development Bank, which is also very sensitive to these issues. We had a strategy meeting with them last fall and Judy’s charge for me is to try and help them maintain their momentum. What I can say so far is that I have found a very positive response.

CC: What is the difference between the World Bank and the World Bank Group?

JW: The World Bank is typically perceived to be the institution which is the International Bank for Reconstruction Development and an institution called the International Development Association, but we do have two other principle affiliates: the International Finance Corporation, which deals with the private sector and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which deals with insurance of private sector investments. So, when you talk about the World Bank Group it includes all of those entities plus one or two more. Basically, I am speaking for the Group. Judith has charged me to ensure that we reach out to our private sector activities as well as the governmental activities that are pursued by the Bank.

CC: How long have you been in your current position as President of the World Bank?

JW: Eight years.

CC: In those eight years, what stands out as the most unique development that you didn’t forsee?

JW: I think the most unique thing that’s happened in our institution is that we’ve moved significantly from a sort of institutional approach to a much more human approach. We perceive the issues of poverty within the context of people, not just in the context of numbers. In humanizing the institution, one of the byproducts is, of course, an immediate focus on persons with disabilities. When you deal at the human level it’s not just statistics you’re looking at—you’re looking at the particular needs of individuals. The transition in the past eight years here to take account of persons with disabilities and of vulnerable groups such as orphans or indigenous people—the issue in terms of enfranchising and giving voice to poor people in general—I would call it a humanizing of the institution. There is now the recognition that you cannot deal with questions of poverty unless you deal with it through real people. My belief about persons with disabilities is that they should not be conceived as a burden, but as an asset, and what we should be trying to do is to educate them so that they can assist with problem-solving. I regard people with disabilities as people who have some limitations, but who very often have great strengths and great drive to fully participate. Our task is to try to ensure that they have the opportunity to contribute.

CC: What has been the most challenging aspect of your current position?

JW: Well I think the greatest challenge in taking on any large organization is accomplishing change in a specified time frame. Whether you’re dealing with IBM, Daimler Benz, the U.S. government or any organization, bringing about change takes time. The frustration is that it takes five to seven years to turn a big organization in terms of its direction and culture. I hadn’t realized just how long it takes, but now I realize it’s like turning an aircraft carrier. Once you’ve turned it’s a pretty good thing, but turning it is a hell of a problem.

CC: And you must make sure it doesn’t do a 360. [Laughs]

JW: Yes, you have to do that too. You have to make sure that it stays on course.

CC: Are you familiar with the ABILITY House project?

JW: I don’t think so.

CC: It’s a program that was created in partnership with Habitat for Humanity International. Have you worked with Habitat for Humanity?

JW: Yes, we have.

CC: That’s great to hear. We partner with Habitat for Humanity International to build accessible housing for low-income people with disabilities. There are two fundamental elements that distinguish an ABILITY House from a typical Habitat for Humanity home. The plans address any specific accommodations a person or family may need such as fully accessible restrooms, ramps, wider hallways, raised outlets or lowered countertops. Furthermore, an ABILITY House specifically targets the volunteer outreach to people with disabilities for all phases of planning and construction. I was just in Athens at the launch event for the European Year for People with Disabilities and spoke with Anna Diamantopoulou, the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs for the European parliament; we may be working with them and building some ABILITY Houses in Europe. I’d like to encourage World Bank to be a partner in going into these developing countries...

More info. available at worldbank

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More stories from The Practice issue:

Interview with David E. Kelley of The Practice

CSUN Adaptive Technology Conference

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