World Bank President Robert Zoellick Speaks at Harvard IOP

President of the World Bank Robert B. Zoellick discussed the modernization of the international financial institution at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Tuesday evening.

Zoellick said the Bank has sought to portray itself as a center of knowledge and learning as part of the modernization process.

In a recent step towards this goal, he explained, the Bank opened up seven thousand of its internal data sets to the public for free. In the future, Zoellick said, he would like to create an interactive platform to share information with mobile devices, a “transformative” development in the exchange of information between individuals and the Bank.

These changes would further increase the World Bank’s ability to help developing countries, Zoellick said. To engage developing countries in the learning process, Zoellick said they needed to be treated as clients who can make their own decisions.

Zoellick also discussed the problems that the Bank faced when he assumed his position as president and the ways in which he approached them. Wrestling with leadership issues, the Bank faced the “deeper crisis” of modernizing the World Bank’s approach to reconstruction, economic development, and political activism, according to Zoellick.

“The fundamentals hadn’t been addressed,” he said.

The Bank had to shift its focus from “existential questions” to practical issues and goals, he said. To that end, the Bank brought in people who could achieve the necessary innovative solutions.

Although “textbook solutions” to complex social problems often tempt policymakers, Zoellick said, economists need a basic political understanding to grasp underlying issues and create viable solutions.

A technocratic solution divorced from the political and institutional context is ultimately useless, according to Zoellick. Streamlined execution is essential to applying policies that start out merely as theories.

Zoellick also said that the previous model of decision making was not successful.

“We’ve learned that top down, belief-driven models are bound for failure,” Zoellick said.

To offset the deeply ingrained “institutional architecture” that can make the Bank appear secluded and aloof, Zoellick said he increased transparency to encourage better decision-making by opening up channels to engage with the issues.

Stephanie Wu ’15, who attended the talk, said she appreciated Zoellick’s experience-based insight.

“It’s interesting that you can’t separate economics from the political context,” she said.

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