Zen and the art of poverty reduction

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the struggle of many people to get enough to eat during the holiday season.

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 ?indful meditation?with Jim Kim, the bank? president, who is an admirer of Hanh.

?t was all very Zen,?one staff member told the Washington Post.

Afterward, Hanh and 20 brown-robed brethren led a ?alking meditation?through Washington ?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 ?he power of aimlessness?and thinks that civilization is threatened by ?oracious?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 bank? governors on Oct. 12, the group? ?alue proposition?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 world? 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 bank? 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 bank? 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.

How much difference the new strategy will make from day to day, though, is open to question. The bank already is supposed to be helping the poorest. The new goal marks only a shift in emphasis and, on the face of it, will not stop it from doing most of what it is doing now. The aim of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is not overly ambitious: Recent data suggest that the income of the bottom 40 percent has been growing as fast as, or faster than, the national average in most developing countries for the past 25 years.

So does the new approach matter? The rhetorical change probably does not, but the reorganization that accompanies it might. For years, the World Bank has been organized along geographic lines, with units for southern Asia, Africa and so on. The regions control the budgets, hire the staff and dominate the bank. They also are responsible for its reputation for being divided into silos: Experts from different regions rarely talk to each other.

In an attempt to break this pattern, the bank is setting up 14 ?lobal practices,?with focuses such as finance and infrastructure, which will cut across the regions.

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