view: Asian dynamics at WB —Saleem H Ali
The president of the World Bank has always been American by citizenship and the head of the IMF, a European. Additionally, the chief economist of the Bank has always been a westerner as well — until this year
Walking through the corridors of the World Bank’s offices in Washington is a treat in multicultural employment. A chorus of languages and phenotypic variations await any visitor and one gets the resounding feeling that this is indeed an “international organisation.”
However, unlike the United Nations headquarters in New York, one usually does not encounter the same level of diversity at executive meetings at the World Bank, especially if one considers the top leadership.
Even though many Pakistanis and Indians have fairly comfortable management roles in the Bank, they have never made it to the very top echelons of management no matter how grand they may sound in their titles upon returning home as consultants.
The president of the World Bank has always been American by citizenship and the head of the IMF, a European. Additionally, the chief economist of the Bank has always been a westerner as well — until this year.
For the first time in its history the World Bank has appointed a non-westerner as its chief economist. Dr Justin (Yifu) Lin, a Chinese scholar has been named to this high profile position which has in the past been held by controversial luminaries such as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz or former Harvard President and US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers.
Granted that Dr Lin has a fairly western pedigree in terms of his higher studies at the University of Chicago and subsequently his teaching career at Yale, but he is very much a Chinese loyalist at heart. Indeed, he defected from Taiwan to the Chinese mainland by reportedly swimming 2000 meters from Jinmen Island in 1979, where he had been sent as part of compulsory military training.
Prior to joining the Bank, Justin Lin was Professor and Founding Director of the China Centre for Economic Research (CCER) at Peking University (which interestingly enough still insists on going by the city’s old colonial name). He is a prolific scholar with 16 books to his credit including a bestseller called The China Miracle: Development Strategy and Economic Reform, which has been published in seven languages.
As the title of the book suggests, Dr Lin has a particular confidence in China’s trajectory in terms of economic development. This might mean that he will shift the emphasis in the Bank from conventional market mechanisms to a more hybrid variety of initiatives. He is particularly interested in rural support programs which might augur well for Pakistan. The Aga Khan Foundation’s programs are often heralded as a success among civil society institutions but until now have largely been ignored by the Bank.
Having an Asian in the World Bank’s economic strategy team will certainly boost the morale of many other economists from developing countries. Perhaps we will see more such stars emerging in upper management ranks. If nothing else the psychological impact of having a potentially empathetic individual at the top job may be positive.
Yet, Dr Lin will have to show us fairly soon that he really does care about rural development and many of the causes he has championed. When expectations are high of such trophy positions being given to a member of an under-represented group, failure to act effectively can lead to rapid cynicism among the public, as we have seen with the tenure of US Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Furthermore, the chief economist’s position at the bank has been marked in the past with considerable bickering, even among elite economists. Let us not forget the acrimonious exchanges between two MIT alumni who were in this position: Joseph Stiglitz (the former chief economist of the Bank and currently a professor at Columbia) and Kenneth Rogoff (the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and currently professor at Harvard).
Stiglitz wrote a scathing critique of the IMF’s policies in his book Globalization and its Discontents to which Rogoff responded in an open letter posted on the IMF web site that stated: “Joe, as an academic, you are a towering genius. Like your fellow Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, you have a “beautiful mind.” As a policymaker, however, you were just a bit less impressive.”
Let us hope that Dr Lin can prove that his intellect and his policymaking prowess to work effectively in this highly polarized economic environment. Additionally, Dr Lin must remember the enormous environmental cost of China’s economic development that are now beginning to make a dent in its growth and even its acceptability as a viable sports venue.
If constructive lessons from the Asian growth experience can be moderated with cautionary insights about program implementation, then Pakistanis and other citizens of developing countries have much to look forward to in this landmark new change of leadership at the Bank.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org