The World Bank Needs to Return to Its Mission
With a clear plan, the World Bank would be able to find partners to help it support progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which has been disappointing so far. Instead, the Bank is adopting an approach that would leave poor countries mired in debt, by relying on Wall Street to finance their basic needs.
NEW YORK – The World Bank declares that its mission is to end extreme poverty within a generation and to boost shared prosperity. These goals are universally agreed as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. But the World Bank lacks an SDG strategy, and now it is turning to Wall Street to please its political masters in Washington. The Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, should find a better way forward, and he can do so by revisiting one of his own great successes.
Kim and I worked closely together from 2000 to 2005, to scale up the world’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Partners in Health, the NGO led by Kim and his colleague, Harvard University’s Paul Farmer, had used antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) to treat around 1,000 impoverished HIV-infected rural residents in Haiti, and had restored them to health and hope.
I pointed out to Kim and Farmer 18 years ago that their success in Haiti could be expanded to reach millions of people at low cost and with very high social benefits. I recommended a new multilateral funding mechanism, a global fund, to fight AIDS, and a new funding effort by the United States.
In early 2001, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and in 2003 US President George W. Bush launched the PEPFAR program. The World Health Organization, led by the Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, recruited Kim to lead the WHO’s scale-up effort. Kim did a fantastic job, and his efforts provided the groundwork for bringing ARVs to millions, saving lives, livelihoods, and families.
There are four lessons of that great success. First, the private sector was an important partner, by offering patent-protected drugs at production cost. Drug companies eschewed profits in the poorest countries out of decency and for the sake of their reputations. They recognized that patent rights, if exercised to excess, would be a death warrant for millions of poor people.
Second, the effort was supported by private philanthropy, led by Bill Gates, who inspired others to contribute as well. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backed the new Global Fund, the WHO, and the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, which I led for the WHO in 2000-2001 (and which successfully campaigned for increased donor funding to fight AIDS and other killer diseases).
Third, the funding to fight AIDS took the form of outright grants, not Wall Street loans. Fighting AIDS in poor countries was not viewed as a revenue-generating investment needing fancy financial engineering. It was regarded as a vital public good that required philanthropists and high-income countries to fund life-saving treatment for poor and dying people.
Fourth, trained public health specialists led the entire effort, with Kim and Farmer serving as models of professionalism and rectitude. The Global Fund does not stuff the pockets of corrupt ministers, or trade funding for oil concessions or arms deals. The Global Fund applies rigorous, technical standards of public health, and holds recipient countries accountable – including through transparency and co-financing requirements – for delivering services.
The World Bank needs to return to its mission. The SDGs call for, among other things, ending extreme poverty and hunger, instituting universal health coverage, and universal primary and upper secondary education by 2030. But, despite making only slow progress toward these goals, the Bank shows no alarm or strategy to help get the SDGs on track for 2030. On the contrary, rather than embrace the SDGs, the Bank is practically mute, and its officials have even been heard to mutter negatively about them in the corridors of power.
Perhaps US President Donald Trump doesn’t want to hear about his government’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the SDGs. But it is Kim’s job to remind him and the US Congress of those obligations – and that it was a Republican president, George W. Bush who creatively and successfully pursued the battle against AIDS.
Wall Street may help to structure the financing of large-scale renewable energy projects, public transport, highways, and other infrastructure that can pay its way with tolls and user fees. A World Bank-Wall Street partnership could help to ensure that such projects are environmentally sound and fair to the affected communities. That would be all for the good.
Yet such projects, designed for profit or at least direct cost recovery, are not even remotely sufficient to end extreme poverty. Poor countries need grants, not loans, for basic needs like health and education. Kim should draw on his experience as the global health champion who successfully battled against AIDS, rather than embracing an approach that would only bury poor countries in debt. We need the World Bank’s voice and strenuous efforts to mobilize grant financing for the SDGs.
Health care for the poor requires systematic training and deployment of community health workers, diagnostics, medicines, and information systems. Education for the poor requires trained teachers, safe and modern classrooms, and connectivity to other schools and to online curricula. These SDGs can be achieved, but only if there is a clear strategy, grant financing, and clear delivery mechanisms. The World Bank should develop the expertise to help donors and recipient governments make these programs work. Kim knows just how to do this, from his own experience.
Trump and other world leaders are personally accountable for the SDGs. They need to do vastly more. So, too, do the world’s super-rich, whose degree of wealth is historically unprecedented. The super-rich have received round after round of tax cuts and special tax breaks, easy credits from central banks, and exceptional gains from technologies that are boosting profits while lowering unskilled workers’ wages. Even with stock markets’ recent softness, the world’s 2000+ billionaires have around $10 trillion in wealth – enough to fund fully the incremental effort needed to end extreme poverty, if the governments also do their part.
When going to Wall Street, or Davos, or other centers of wealth, the World Bank should inspire the billionaires to put their surging wealth into personal philanthropy to support the SDGs. Bill Gates is doing this, with historic results, for public health. Which billionaires will champion the SDGs for education, renewable energy, fresh water and sanitation, and sustainable agriculture? With a clear SDG plan, the World Bank would find partners to help it fulfill its core, historic, and vital mission.