In World Bank President Robert Zoellick's Maiden Speech, A Surprise Focus on Climate Change

October 10, 2007

One very good thing that can be said about Robert Zoellick's maiden speech as World Bank president today is that it was much better than the advance account in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) would have led listeners to expect. The speech, "An Inclusive and Sustainable Globalization," marked Zoellick’s first 100 days in office and was cleverly timed to get ahead of the bank’s annual meetings next week, a big improvement upon the ritualized big Annual Meetings Speech.The WSJ account, based an advance copy of the speech and an exclusive interview with Zoellick himself, said that that the new bank president would be pushing hard for free trade. This seemed plausible, given that Zoellick was previously the U.S. Trade Representative. And of course no serious development policy expert doubts the benefits of expanded trade. Even so, it would have been an odd and controversial choice for a new World Bank president to make "free trade" a central plank of his platform.As it happened, Zoellick never once uttered the phrase "free trade" in the speech, although he did of course describe how the bank tries to help poor countries benefit more from trade, for example, by helping countries improve ports and meet global standards.One phrase he used repeatedly that did NOT appear in The Wall Street Journal was "climate change." In fact, climate change was one of very few issues in the speech where he made a specific commitment to action:

We are working with our Board to significantly step up our assistance to the international efforts to address climate change. At our upcoming Annual Meetings and at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali this December, I hope to outline a portfolio of ways the World Bank Group can help integrate the needs of development and low carbon growth. We need to focus particularly on the interests of developing countries, so that we can meet the challenge of climate change without slowing the growth that will help overcome poverty.

To understand how welcome this is, it is worth recalling that under Zoellick’s ill-starred predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz, bank environment specialists were compelled to expunge the very words "climate change" from title of the bank’s strategy on the issue, substituting instead "clean energy," a term that was presumably more acceptable to a White House then in the final stages of climate change denial.Given that developing countries are already suffering the ill-effects of global warming, and the rapidly accumulating evidence of more dire impacts in store (including William Cline's new projections of agricultural collapse in some poor countries by in the second half of this century), this is clearly an area where the bank will be called upon to do more. Perhaps Zoellick was in part positioning the bank to take advantage of rising concern about climate change. Whatever the motivation, the fresh focus was long overdue and much welcome.Climate change aside, there was plenty of substance in the speech on more traditional bank issues. The six-point agenda he laid out struck me and a handful of other listeners I spoke with immediately after the speech at the National Press Club as broadly right. The six "strategic themes" are summarized in the bank’s press release on the speech as follows:

  • Helping to overcome poverty and spur sustainable growth in the poorest countries, especially in Africa.

  • Addressing the special challenges of states coming out of conflict.

  • Developing a competitive menu of “development solutions” for middle income countries, involving customized services as well as finance.

  • Playing a more active role with regional and global “public goods” on issues crossing national borders, including climate change, HIV/Aids, malaria, and aid for trade.

  • Supporting those advancing development and opportunity in the Arab world.

  • Fostering a “knowledge and learning” agenda across the World Bank Group to support its role as a “brain trust” of applied experience.

By my count, three of the six correspond in varying degrees to the "Five Crucial Tasks for the Next President of the World Bank" identified by a CGD working group in 2005, before Wolfowitz took the helm. Those tasks were:

  • Revitalize the bank's relevance for its big middle income and emerging market borrowers.

  • Bring new discipline and greater differentiation to low-income country operations.

  • Obtain an explicit mandate, an adequate grant instrument, and a special governance structure for the bank’s work on global public goods.

  • Take the lead on independent evaluation of all aid spending.

  • Reform the governance of the bank itself, including changes in the composition of the Bank's board and a more open selection process for future Bank presidents.

While governance of the bank did not make Zoellick’s top six list, there was nonetheless an intriguing hint that he may be prepared to open the topic for discussion:

Two years ago, I suggested that China build on its success by becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. This is, of course, a challenge for others, too, if we are to achieve an inclusive and sustainable globalization. And with responsibility, there should be greater voice and representation. We need to advance the agenda to strengthen the participation of developing countries throughout the Bank Group’s work and workforce… (and then, much later in the speech) …we need greater voice and representation on our Board and diversity in our workforce.

More concretely, Zoellick announced that he had reached agreement with the Board to increase the bank’s contribution to the International Development Association or IDA, the bank’s soft loan facility, to $3.5 billion, more than twice the contribution during the previous IDA replenishment round, in an effort to get rich countries to similarly increase their contributions. At the same time, he said, the bank would be simplifying the procedures and cutting interest rates on loans to middle income countries financed by the bank’s borrowings on international capital markets. “We aim to be faster, better and cheaper,” he said. (How the bank can boost its contribution to IDA and simultaneously cut interest rates on its other loans is presumably a question that will be discussed in excruciating detail in the upcoming annual meetings!)With so much good news, it seems churlish to note that the delivery of the speech was remarkably uninspiring. The poor man sounded as if he were reading the speech for the first time. He spent much more time glancing at his text than connecting with his audience. Unfortunately, this matters, because much of the World Bank president’s power derives from effective use of the bully pulpit. Fortunately, public speaking is a teachable skill. For Zoellick’s case, and for the sake of the bank’s effectiveness in the next several years, somebody in his substantial team of public affairs experts should see that he gets the coaching he needs before his next big speech.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.