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Students Debate World Bank with Wolfensohn

By Vicky Hsu


James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, met with a group of twenty students for an hour-long forum before Commencement last Friday.

“This is a conversation that Mr. Wolfensohn has agreed to in light of the issues that students have raised about the nature of the Bank and about Mr. Wolfensohn giving the commencement speech,” said Chancellor Phillip M. Clay PhD ’75, the moderator of the forum.

During the forum, student participants raised questions about the World Bank’s record on issues of race, gender, and human and labor rights.

Wolfensohn defended the Bank. “A single characterization of the institution is just inaccurate,” he said.

Worries about Bank rules

Brice Smith G questioned Wolfensohn about the World Bank’s voting system and governing rules, specifically asking about “the fair amount of racism in the World Bank, how the ‘one dollar, one vote’ rule marginalizes the developing countries, and secret board meetings.” Smith said current Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’ joking about polluting Africa for profit was such an example of racism.

Wolfensohn acknowledged the voting rule, which gives nations with larger economies more influence over the Bank’s actions, but said the criticism was ill-founded. “I spent seven years at the Bank trying to make the rule as irrelevant as possible,” he said. “Not once has a bill come down to a counting of votes.”

“I won't fight for a change in the voting system. This is because a) I don’t think I can win it, and b) I don’t think it matters,” he said.

Wolfensohn called racism in the World Bank “a preposterous idea.”

“Be careful, because this is attacking real people,” he said. “There are 11,000 people representing 140 nationalities who work for the World Bank. The World Bank may make mistakes and get it wrong, but the quality of people and their efforts to make a difference cannot be wiped away.”

Wolfensohn said he would press to have open meetings of the Bank’s board but doubted they would be approved. “If discussions were public, all havoc will break loose Countries would be offended.”

“I vigorously support the release of minutes, but not the actual debates, given the sensitivity of what the board members talk about,” Wolfensohn said.

Wolfensohn also responded to criticism that the Bank was too slow to act. “The issue of getting people out of poverty is a process,” he said. “It is a complex and difficult issue. Even if we were perfect, which we are clearly not, it cannot be solved instantly.”

Wolfensohn defends record

Wolfensohn addressed concerns that the World Bank projects were not targeting human, gender, and labor rights issues.

“I am being pragmatic,” Wolfensohn said, “If the rights issues are lifted to visibility, the board of directors won’t approve those projects, because it is beyond the jurisdiction of the World Bank.”

“I want to deal with rights issues without calling it that,” he said.

“I am very proud to be a part of the World Bank. I can look you in the eye and say that it is a different institution,” he said. “It is more open and more modest than when I first joined seven years ago.”

Opinions on forum mixed

While the students attending the forum welcomed the opportunity to meet with Wolfensohn, they disagreed on how informative the gathering was.

“At first, Wolfensohn was pretty good with answering questions, pretty open to discussion and not so much being a politician,” said Leona A. Karnali G.

“MIT students were too aggressive and defensive about their views, though,” she said. “They asked really attacking questions, so that after about halfway through, Wolfensohn became defensive.”

Smith had a different opinion. “I had very little expectation going in, but even then I found the forum to be pretty disappointing,” he said. “I got the impression that Wolfensohn wasn’t taking us very seriously, dismissing our criticism with sweeping generalizations.”

“It was a smart move of Wolfensohn’s office to agree to the forum,” said Rossana Dudziak G. “I find many of his responses to the criticism persuasive, but I know that the World Bank could do much more in terms of poverty alleviation.”

“He avoided some of the difficult issues by answering the obvious parts of the questions,” she said.

James I. Vickery G felt similarly. “Wolfensohn gave reasonable, perfectly fair answers,” he said. “It is good that he was willing to compromise, though at times he side-stepped some issues and gave vague explanations.”

“The biggest constraint was time, and so we didn't get to a lot of the questions people had in mind, but generally I enjoyed it and thought it was interesting,” Vickery said.

Clay said he was “delighted about the way the forum was conducted.”

“The students were respectful, and their questions were very well framed,” Clay said. “Mr. Wolfensohn was frank and engaging.”

Students differed in their views of the impact of the forum as well.

“Wolfensohn is genuine in trying to change people’s opinion of the Bank, but I don’t think the forum changed anyone’s mind. The people who went in vehemently anti-Bank walked out anti-Bank,” Dudziak said.

“It is unrealistic to think that people will change their minds within an hour,”Vickery said. However, he felt that the discussion did make an impression on him. “I came out with a much more positive impression of him and the World Bank,” he said.

“Some questions he answered better than others,” Smith said. “There were a few pieces of enlightening information. ”

Students invited to Bank office

Wolfensohn acknowledged that many of the issues raised at the forum are “not easy questions, and I can only give you flip answers in the allotted two or three minutes.” He invited anyone who wished to continue the discussion to “spend a day in Washington and meet people who work directly with these issues at the World Bank.”

Clay said that his office would work with the World Bank and the students to set up this engagement.

“This is a surprise offer, and Mr. Wolfensohn was sincere in extending the invitation,” Clay said.

“It is a generous offer that he made,” Vickery said. “I think a lot of people will take him up on it, which would be something good that came out of the forum.”