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China’s Lessons for the World Bank

The China Daily recently ran a front-page story recounting how Paul Wolfowitz used threats and vulgarities to pressure senior World Bank staff. The newspaper noted that Wolfowitz sounded like a character out of the mafia television show The Sopranos . At the same time, while the Wolfowitz scandal unfolded, China was playing host to the Africa Development Bank (ADB), which held its Board meeting in Shanghai. This is a vivid metaphor for today’s world: while the World Bank is caught up in corruption and controversy, China skillfully raises its geopolitical profile in the developing world.

China’s rising power is, of course, based heavily on its remarkable economic success. The ADB meeting took place in the Pudong District, Shanghai’s most remarkable development site. From largely unused land a generation ago, Pudong has become a booming center of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, parks, industry, and vast stretches of apartment buildings. Shanghai’s overall economy is currently growing at around 13% per year, thus doubling in size every five or six years. Everywhere there are startups, innovations, and young entrepreneurs hungry for profits.

I had the chance to participate in high-level meetings between Chinese and African officials at the ADB meetings. The advice that the African leaders received from their Chinese counterparts was sound, and much more practical than they typically get from the World Bank.

Chinese officials stressed the crucial role of public investments, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, to lay the basis for private-sector-led growth. In a hungry and poor rural economy, as China was in the 1970’s and as most of Africa is today, a key starting point is to raise farm productivity. Peasant farmers need the benefits of fertilizer, irrigation, and high-yield seeds, all of which were a core part of China’s economic takeoff.