World Bank reforms not hindering operations — officials

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim addresses staff during his first day as the bank’s new head. Under Kim’s leadership, the financial institution has undergone many reforms, including staff reorganization and change in its operational model. Photo by: Ryan Rayburn / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The World Bank has “overdelivered” on its lending so far this year despite ongoing reforms that some feared had been distracting the bank from its operations, according to senior bank management.

President Jim Kim himself said that the bank’s lending was ahead of schedule compared to years past.

“If you look at where we were at half the year at the end of December, we were actually very far ahead of our target for the year,” he told reporters at a briefing on World Bank reforms. “And part of it is because we've continued to say 'We're not going to stop the business in order to get through the change, we're going to keep going.’”

The amount of lending that the bank has done this year is a significant measure of how staff have coped with uncertainty as the Washington, D.C.-based institution has undertaken a number of initiatives to change the way it does business, including cutting the budget, reorganizing staff, and changing it’s operational model.

Kim said that he was aware of concerns that the bank was doing too many reforms at the same time but saw it as a necessity.

“I now have experience in two major reform efforts, and if there's anything that I learned, it was that if you know you've gotta make a reform, make it... especially if its things like looking at your finances- whether it's expenditure reduction or how you are going to use your balance sheet- so we felt it was really important to move on all fronts and move as quickly as we possibly could,” he explained, adding that the bank’s board had been very supportive of the broad reform effort so far.

Future budget cuts

The World Bank’s “expenditure review” aims to cut $400 million from the operational budget over the next three years.

Bertrand Badre, the bank’s chief financial officer, said that $125 million of those cuts had already been identified and shared with staff. They will go into effect on July 1, at the beginning of the fiscal year, and were drawn from travel, real estate, and other areas that were peripheral to operations.

Future cuts will likely involve staff, the bank has admitted — but Badre added the goal was to make the budget adjustment as painless as possible.

“The objective is to make sure the implementation does not disrupt the operations, does not create unnecessary trouble, does not create unnecessary anxiety — that's our job — and I'm very confident we'll make it without creating too much trouble with staff and with clients,” he said.

Kim noted that staff anxiety was a natural response to the changes underway and that senior management had been trying to do a better job of communicating, including through events like a town hall that the president will hold with employees next week.

“There's no question that there's a lot of anxiety, and I have great empathy for our staff members, because we actually haven't gone through this for 17 years, so there's no question that it's creating a lot of uncertainty and that will continue until people are fully mapped and the new system gets going, and even after that, I think people are going to be concerned,” Kim said.

Staff “mapping”

The “mapping” of staff to new technical offices known as global practices is an area of the reforms that will most impact bank staff and operations, and a source of much of their anxiety.

Keith Hansen, one of the two new vice presidents for global practices, said that approximately 5,000 of 5,700 of staff had already been assigned to their new offices, and the rest would be confirmed by the end of the month.

But the officials made it clear that cultural changes at the bank will likely be more important than the structural changes that go into effect on July 1.

“It will take some time, just as whenever you acquire a new tool it takes time to realize all the things it enables you to do,” said Hansen. “So July 2, we're not going to see any radical new way of working, so we think over that transition, the first year or so, people will begin to spread their wings.”

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    Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. His coverage focuses on Latin America and World Bank affairs, as well as Washington's global development scene. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia - one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.