The World Bank's big party — and the 'noise' that could spoil it

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, during a high-level meeting at the 2014 U.N. General Assembly in New York. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / UN Photo

The dust has barely settled, the red carpets have hardly been rolled up and the traffic only just returned to normal after a jam-packed and star-studded slew of events around the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

And already it’s on to the next.

Global development’s busiest season for planning, partnering and self-reflection continues next week with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings in Washington, D.C. Thousands of policymakers, ministers, business leaders, activists, and yes, reporters, will descend on the world’s largest development bank’s headquarters to take stock of an institution — and industry — in transition and wrestle with some of the most pressing and controversial questions about the future of development assistance and the World Bank Group’s role in delivering it.

This year’s annual meetings arrive only three months after President Jim Yong Kim’s reform measures went into effect, including the appointment of new “global practice” leaders, a new “systematic country diagnostic,” and a longer-term — and, according to many, murkier — effort to cut $400 million off the bank’s budget, including through as-of-yet undisclosed staff reductions.

The real impacts — and side effects — of these changes in the organizational structure, operating procedures and spending will take longer to fully appreciate and evaluate. But already, staff, clients and donors have offered plenty of speculation and more than a little grumbling, inside and outside the institution’s walls — walls, which may be relocated from their expensive downtown address in the near future.

While the World Bank Group’s board of directors has not requested discussions on any major bank policy issues during these annual meetings, there is plenty of buzz adding some background noise — and potential drama — to the week ahead.

Will staff frustrations spoil the public message?

The annual meetings are supposed to be when the World Bank puts on its best face and stakes its claim as the world’s premier development institution. But in the midst of Kim’s reforms, including some unanswered, anxiety-inducing questions surrounding the ongoing “strategic staffing exercise,” the bank president’s outward positivity has clashed with an aura of internal conflict and staff complaints.

Click here to view the complete version of this image.

This week Devex learned of a yellow flyer, posted anonymously inside the bank, urging staff to shut down their computers and step out of their offices between 10:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m Thursday morning if they feel they do not have answers to certain questions about the change process. These include: “Do you know the criteria, process and timeline for the strategic staffing” and “do you know whether the change is driven by improving bank effectiveness or saving the $400 million?”

In response to an inquiry from Devex, a bank spokesperson dismissed the flyer, stating “we’re not going to comment on anonymous flyers from lone individuals.”

More high-level resignations, hirings and firings?

Last summer, Kim’s reform process took a sudden turn when an internal memo from the president announced the departure of two senior managers — Pamela Cox and Caroline Anstey — with little explanation of why they were leaving.

Devex has learned from a bank source that on Wednesday Regional Vice President for Africa Makhtar Diop announced to the bank’s board that he is vacating his current position and taking up a new role as vice president and special adviser to Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Sri Mulyani, who will assume Diop’s responsibilities during the period of the annual meetings.

In an email from Mulyani to bank staff obtained by Devex, she wrote that Diop “is keen to take time to review his professional opportunities, which include returning to his position of regional vice president for Africa.”

The now-former regional vice president has been mentioned on a short list of candidates to assume the presidency of the African Development Bank after Donald Kaberuka’s term ends Sept. 1 next year. Since election to that position requires significant time spent meeting with African ministers, it is possible Diop’s potential candidacy was seen to be in conflict with his position leading the bank’s engagement on the African continent.

Still, Diop’s transition only days before the bank is set to receive delegations from African countries to discuss their relationship with the institution — not to mention the bank’s role in responding to the ongoing Ebola virus crisis in West Africa — presents a tricky vacancy, which Mulyani is apparently attempting to fill.

“With the annual meetings approaching, effective today I will oversee the management of the Africa region, coordinate the work with our clients and staff, and lead our bilateral engagements with the Africa region delegations,” Mulyani wrote, noting that she will share “shortly the acting arrangements beyond the annual meetings.”

In response to an inquiry from Devex, a bank spokesperson cited the agency’s policy not to comment on “personnel matters.”

Finally, at the same time the bank’s leadership is looking to cut costs through a “strategic staffing exercise” many fear will result in significant staff reductions, details have emerged about a $94,000 “scarce skills premium” paid to Chief Financial Officer Bertrand Badre.

The decision to award that bonus — and to a CFO responsible for finding $400 million in savings — has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many employees and commentators, including the World Bank Staff Association, which has objected to the bonus, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg.

These and other ongoing internal buzz items will add the background noise to a slew of important questions about the World Bank’s future in a changing development landscape, which has seen new actors emerge from the global South, and which is looking for a successor to the focus and guidance provided by the Millennium Development Goals.

As always, Devex will be on the ground in Washington to follow those debates, gauge reactions to them and report back to you.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.