Viewpoint: The World Bank: Why It Is Still Needed and Why It Still Disappoints
Friday, April 24, 2015
The decade or two after WW2 saw many of the world’s poorest countries gain their independence from Colonial rule, and they were hoping to rapidly become less poor. Economics taught policy makers in those countries that a higher investment rate is crucial to assuring faster economic growth. Being a poor country makes it harder to finance the required investments from domestic savings. Yet rich countries should have ample savings available that might be profitably diverted to this task. In an ideal world, global capital markets could be expected to bridge the gap. But 70 years ago those markets were thin and/or not trusted as a source of finance.
In response, the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, held at Bretton Woods in 1944, created the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)—a core component of what came to be known as the World Bank. (The International Monetary Fund was created at the same time.) The essential idea was that the IBRD would borrow money on global markets to lend to developing countries. The Bank’s AAA credit rating (stemming from conservative lending policies relative to its capital) allowed it to lend on favorable terms. An aid-facility (with a large grant component), the International Development Association (IDA), was added in 1960.
Much has changed in the 70 years since the famous Bretton Woods conference. World Bank lending (IBRD+IDA) now represents only about 5% of the aggregate private capital flows to developing countries. In the last 10 years or so there have been prominent calls for radically reforming, or even closing, the institution on the grounds that international capital markets have developed greatly over those 70 years. It is also claimed by some that the Bank’s efforts are wasted due to poor governance in developing countries.
Does the Bank still have an important role? If so, does it fulfill that role, and if not, how might it do better? In a new working paper of the Center for Global Development I argue that the Bank’s development role today overlaps only partially with its original role, as conceived at the Bretton Woods Conference 70 years ago. Its role today is complementary to (rather than competing with) the private financial sector, other development banks, and academia. Knowledge-generation is central to that role. Development knowledge has properties of a public good, which the Bank can generate in the process of actually doing development on the ground.