Zen and the art of poverty reduction

  • (Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services)

The World Bank may need a period of quiet reflection, but this was ridiculous.

On Sept. 10, 300 bankers joined Thich Nhat Hanh, an 87-year-old Vietnamese monk and founder of the Order of Interbeing, for a day of ìmindful meditationî with Jim Kim, the bankís president, who is an admirer of Hanh.

ìIt was all very Zen,î one staff member told the Washington Post.

Afterward, Hanh and 20 brown-robed brethren led a ìwalking meditationî through Washington ó though, since the traffic police did not show up, the quiet contemplation was marred by the not-so-Zen honking of angry drivers.

Hanh says that he believes in ìthe power of aimlessnessî and thinks that civilization is threatened by ìvoraciousî economic growth. Kim, one hopes, does not. He is trying to give the bank a sharper focus. In the unlovely words of a new strategy, endorsed by the bankís governors on Oct. 12, the groupís ìvalue propositionî is to end extreme poverty by 2030 and to foster income growth among the poorest 40 percent in every country, not merely in poor ones. The aim is to shake up the worldís leading development body.

The World Bank has 12,000 projects in 172 countries. However, voracious economic growth in the past 25 years has meant that the bankís lending has fallen to less than 1 percent of the combined economic output of the borrowers. As more nations graduate to middle-income status and win access to capital markets for big development projects, fewer of them need the money and expertise the bank has to offer.

Having a target of eradicating poverty aims to finesse this. Extreme poverty is a global problem and would justify a global institution devoted to ending it. One billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, the bankís definition of penury, and most of them are in what the bank calls middle-income countries such as Brazil and India. The bottom 40 percent includes a further 1.5 billion people. Carving out a role in poverty eradication would make the bank relevant to middle-income countries, even though their governments might not need its money anymore and might think that the bank has little to offer their growing middle classes.

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