Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Perkins’ Confessions… a rough book tour is not punishment enough!

I just read the Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. It is a repulsive autobiography, I guess about the mother of all mid-life crises, as the author describes his remorse with the active role he played in a conspiracy aimed at inducing developing countries to incur excessive debts so as to subjugate them and control their natural resources. That individuals could on purpose miscalculate in order to gain benefits is a fact of life, but that this would be happening with malice on a worldwide scale and as part of an American conspiracy is just too much to fathom—and then just sit back.

I haven’t the faintest clue whether the book is true or not and in fact I don’t care because, in either case, Mr. Perkins needs to be prosecuted. Either by American or international courts for committing fraud and crimes against humanity, or, by the same courts, for seeding that kind of distrust that makes it so much harder for good people to trust good people—a basic requisite if the world is to stand a chance.

Something should be done, soon, before it gains more credibility. The book is already a New York Times Bestseller and even though it states that the “World Bank doesn’t help them [the poor countries] to defend themselves. In fact, it forces them into this position,” on the back cover we read a former lead economist of The World Bank saying that it “succeeds as a wake up call because the reader cannot help but assess his or her role on a personal level, thus providing impetus for change.” Pearson ends his book with, “Like all confessions, it is the first step toward redemption.” Good for you! But, pal, a rough book tour is not punishment enough!

I have been vociferously arguing against the Debt Sustainability Analysis of poor developing countries which is currently so much in vogue, basically because I feel that debt should always be contracted because it is productive, not because it might be sustainable. Nonetheless, against Perkins’ Confessions my arguments do sound hollow and naïve though, come to think of it, I much prefer to live out my life with this kind of naïveté than to live with the cynicism otherwise obligatory. Perkins says he wrote so that his daughter could have a future. So do I—for my daughters and for his.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: About the board and the staff

Not long ago in a personnel committee I was reminded (I am not sure why) of the saying about why grandfathers and grandchildren get along so well: they have a common enemy!

But then again I must confess that I have been through some experiences that point to the existence of a big divide, Mr. Chairman. (Jim Wolfensohn) On some occasions when I have been speaking with staff members who were unaware that I belonged to the board, when they found out, some of them have actually panicked, trembled—and that to me is not a very healthy relation. What does the staff think of us? I know that I think very highly of them, generally, and I know I treat them all with respect but … do we all? Or is somebody setting us up?

And while we are on the subject, when are we going to end the tradition of praising one another so much that we dilute the traditional meaning of praise? Colleagues, do you have some special words or a code that you use when praise is really for real? Can you share it with me?

I must be a total stranger to this community because there is no way on earth I can come to understand why all the quite reasonable discourses I keep hearing about development and helping people out always need to be praised as courageous or fearless. They probably know something I don’t. I’d better watch out.

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Saturday, January 08, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: Diversity

Dear Mr. Bourguignon:

I wish to extend to you my most sincere congratulations for your appointment as World Bank Chief Economist and I am certain we will all benefit immensely from your presence among us.

Though I feel that we need always to have one foot firmly placed on each of our development pillars, I very much welcome your “plan to focus more on the second goal, that is, social inclusion,” as inclusion is exactly why I want to make the following comment.

When the search for a new Chief Economist for the World Bank was announced we were told that although it was obviously quite a delicate task, it should not take too long, as the search had to be carried out within “quite a small and exclusive community of development economists.”

As I am certain you realize, that characterization illustrates in itself one of the many daunting challenges we face in the WBG. I beg you, in parallel to your many other responsibilities, to dedicate some time to the challenge of developing that small-and-exclusive-community, so that perhaps in a couple of generations, the Bank could choose one of your successors from a larger and more diversified group—even though that would mean a somewhat more extended search. Again, very much welcome, do count on our support and I wish you a very heartfelt good luck.

Yours sincerely,

Per Kurowski
Just one of 24

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Thursday, January 06, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: Hurrah for the Queen

Dear Friends,

Facing, involuntarily, the need for a career move in the month of November (as I suppose many of you also are), you might understand why I found it interesting to find in The Economist, the announcement by the Buckingham Palace requesting an Assistant Private Secretary to H. M. the Queen. Colleagues, don’t fret, I did not send my C.V. to recruitment@royal.gsx.gov.uk, not because it was not tempting, but because I believe that, although I could perhaps help to offer a global perspective on many issues, the Queen might really be looking for someone with more local know-how (cricket) than what I (baseball) could provide. By the way, for those who believe they might indeed qualify, go to www.royal.gov.uk.

That said, I do think Buckingham’s announcement is in itself noteworthy as it evidences that, even in the Monarchy, good governance issues are deemed so important, as to require the inclusion of a notice that “The Royal Household is committed to equality of opportunity.”

But, my friends, in terms of transparency and equal opportunity in hiring, how really does the IMF currently stand up in its search for a Managing Director, when compared to the British Monarchy? Even though being a born republican (in its original meaning), I cannot refrain from a Hip Hip, Hurrah! For the Queen!

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

On our own (World Bank) governance: The Annual Meetings Development Committee Communiqué

I must confess that I do not really understand how it gets produced. We sort of start out by pitching out a lot of issues to ourselves and then we go over to the other side and bat the balls back for about eleven continuous hours just so that we can later have a chance of fielding them again in our Board meetings six months later. It is hard to tell whether we are in a virtuous or a vicious circle or, if at the end of the day when we get some issues out of the loop, it is because we have adequately exhausted these issues or because they have just exhausted us.

Nonetheless in this unpleasantly volatile world we might find comfort in the thought that our communiqués provide an inspiring source of stability—as they always read the same.

Any readers who do not understand what I am talking about should not worry. The preparation of communiqués is like one of those strange initiation rites impossible to describe to anyone not part of them … and to most who are part of it.

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: WBG’s fight against corruption

Dear Colleagues,

I sincerely believe that the World Bank Group could lose its entire capital, and could still count on the full support of its shareholders, as long as they believed that this was just the financial consequence of a bona fide development action. But I also think that the Bank could lose all support, if its willingness to fight corruption is put in doubt.

I have seen some very important advances but I also believe that the Bank still has some way to go before it can fully live up, in actions and in spirit, to its commitment of being a prime force in the battle against eternal corruption. The fight against corruption really boils down to the continuous setting of good examples, and therefore there could never be a real fight against it if you are unwilling to communicate very openly with the world about your struggle.

I have repeatedly noted concerns that publicity related to fraud and corruption in any Bank project could make it appear that the Bank has acted negligently in its supervision and thus impeded the good work of many; and, on the other hand, that disclosing more detailed information could provide a basis for litigation or other challenges. And this, in turn, might be indicative that a somewhat nonproactive state of mind still exists in some quarters of the Bank. Of course disclosing corruption always presents risks but those risks clearly belong to the “getting up from bed” risks, and, as such, are totally negligible when compared to the “staying in bed” risks.

The Bank, in order to have the moral strength to fight the corruption externally, needs to demonstrate that it is doing its best at home. As no one could expect the Bank, where thousands of individuals move billions in resources, to be immune to human shortcomings, fighting corruption can only mean being very forthcoming on the issue.

In the same vein, as corruption has many tentacles and is certainly not limited to individual wrong-doings, the Bank could perhaps be well-served by appointing an Ombudsman for Corporate Behavior to ascertain whether there is a logical and moral relation between its almost sacred mission of fighting poverty and the way it goes around the planet earth doing it.

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: Board Effectiveness and the ticking clock

Dear Colleagues,

One year gone and less than one to go, so excuse me if I am getting a little anxious and want to share with you some concerns related to Board Effectiveness in a slightly more formal way than through our many brief corridor meetings. I know many of you share them.

First, the truth is that our Board is simply not functioning the way it should and that it really comes down to us to improve it since, unfortunately, in this matter we cannot instruct management to do it for us.

What is wrong? Well, in very few words, that we are drowned in too many written and spoken words about too many topics so that our power, as a body, is completely diluted to such an extent that we could easily qualify as the most expensive rubberstamp in mankind’s history. Think about the following facts:

Our yearly workload consists of about 850 formal Board documents, 3,700 other documents like project assessments, besides technical meetings, informal meetings, bilateral meetings, contact with our capitals, seminars, retreats, executive travel, spring and fall meetings, 11-hour communiqué-drafting sessions, plus, of course, hopefully, some life.

Being 24 EDs, means that very rarely a sufficient number of us are simultaneously focused on the same issue and, if it were to happen, like boats passing in the ocean as they say, chances are that there would always be a need for additional documentation that, presented in some future fall or spring, would at least mean having the issue to be revisited and analyzed by different EDs altogether.

Yes, we have our 24 Alternates, “with full power to act for him when he is not present,” plus the valuable additional resources of about 80 Senior Advisors and Advisors that could act as temporary Alternates, “in the event that both an ED and his Alternate ED are unable to be available.” Unfortunately, sometimes this could make for some additional dilution by splitting us up even more.

Many of us do receive good support from our capitals and so we might reasonably be fulfilling our role as a communication channel between our constituencies and the Bank. Nonetheless, when it gets down to that very personal fiduciary responsibility to “exercise individual judgment in the interest of the Bank and its members, as a whole,” it is clear that we are lacking, in too many ways. My reading of the Articles of Agreement makes it clear that someone counted on our own consciences, as individuals, in order to find some reasonable cohesiveness in this world full of uncertainties and contradictions, and this could perhaps require us to be somewhat more than management—not less.

The Bank is in itself a very peculiar organization and truly difficult to assess. That, together with the extreme sensitivity the Bank shows against any type of criticism, which stops the development of reports which would show clearly what does really work and what really does not work, clearly makes it currently impossible for us to prioritize in any sensible way our workload.

I know that when anyone starts hinting at these problems, the wet blanket of the dangers of micromanagement by the Board are quickly thrown over the discussions but, my friends, in this case what I really am referring to is the problem of the Board’s having a sub-micro influence on macro issues.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you are a Pavarotti, if you have to sing in Madison Square Garden during a Knicks’ match or in the deserts of Arizona, because in both these cases you will not be heard anyhow. In this respect, our Board’s acoustics are currently so bad that I have to repeat what I’ve frequently said in our discussions on the issue of voice for the developing countries, namely that, in reality, no one has a voice.

Where do we go from here? I do not know, but it really behooves us all to find out. This is not a matter for the management of the World Bank since they are not doing anything else than what normal management normally does, which is to maximize their own control of the organization by minimizing the Board’s interference.

Nonetheless, there are some ideas that could provide the basis for some discussions among us. For instance, there is always the possibility of splitting up more of our workload into more committees. Although they should have their own powers of approval, these powers should be subject to our possible objection. This would still mean that the Board does not relinquish its final say in any matter. This way we could perhaps create four committees with responsibility over geographical areas and so at least have more of a chance that, when we convene to discuss a matter, enough of us will have really read and analyzed that particular case in depth.

We know that the CODE, the Committee on Development Effectiveness, is reputed to be the most important committee of the Board, although that might just be false since CODE probably is just as weak as the rest of us and could in fact have the lowest functional-strength/importance-of-issue ratio. Nonetheless, many of the current issues of CODE are exactly those extremely important issues that should always be discussed at Board level, and so we might therefore be delegating in CODE some nondelegable issues, while retaining at the Board the workload of some less important tasks.

Another thing we should do, as I indicated before, is to be more straightforward in demanding from management evaluation reports that clearly identify what is working and what is not. Management should be able to come up with this overview, and, if not, we need to worry even more.

In conclusion, we all know that the needs of our world are almost unlimited, and I am certain that we never discuss something that does not have its very clear and urgent merits but, nevertheless, as every single effective hour of our Board discussions ends up costing us around 80,000 US dollars, we absolutely have to find better ways of prioritizing our time if we are to have a chance to fulfill our mandate as EDs.

I am aware that COGAM (the Committee on Governance and Executive Directors’ Administrative Matters) is planning to take up the issue of Board Effectiveness very soon and I know that it shares many of the concerns. I am certain this step will be a good opportunity to take this issue forward.

Meanwhile, and knowing that so many of you share these concerns, excuse me for reminding us all that our clocks are ticking.

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Monday, January 03, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: The Normal Distribution Function is missing

Dear Colleagues,

The 14th of October we discussed the 2003 Annual Report on Operations Evaluation, and I must admit that I felt a bit unsatisfied with the debate because, when it ended, I left without a real feeling of what was working well in the Bank and what was not. It was only later that I suddenly realized what was missing from the report, so although perhaps a little late, let me share this worry with you.

The standard feature of any evaluation and monitoring system we know of, is the use of some sort of distribution function, be it the normal bell-shaped curve or any other type. It somehow indicates the extremes; for instance, the worst 5% of the organization’s performance and the best 5%.

Any board, if it wants to be effective, cannot spend a lot of its time in the grayish middle area of the function, but has to concentrate its attention on the extremes of the curve, weeding out poor performance and learning from bad experiences, so as to avoid being dragged down into mediocrity, while guaranteeing the promotion of the best and learning from its successes, so as to advance the organization’s goals

Only hours away from completing my first year at the Board, I cannot honestly tell you, with any degree of certainty, about what is working and what is not, and this is quite frustrating. I know I share this sense of frustration with most of you and perhaps the root of our problem lies in the fact that these distribution curves are totally absent in the evaluations brought forward for the Board to consider. If so, it behooves us to make certain they are adequately introduced.

In general terms, I have felt a generalized difficulty of the Bank to manage criticism, as just the utterance of minor questioning, or even withholding praise, makes one sometimes feel somewhat of a traitor to that esprit de corps that is expected to prevail. We have also reached a point where it is even hard to congratulate one another on extraordinarily good performance as the value of praise has been diluted by its ridiculously excessive use.

All this is wrong and clearly to the detriment of the efficiency of our development work that so many poor depend upon. On a daily basis, the needy people of our constituencies are harshly evaluated by life in very cruel terms, so we might as well ask ourselves whether we should not be a little stricter in our assessments, living up to the accountability we so much preach to others.

I wonder: does anyone join me in challenging our evaluation and monitoring systems to come up with a list of the 4 worst and the 5 best activities? of the WB? What if our own Board effectiveness is among the worst?

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Sunday, January 02, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: Voices, Board Effectiveness, and 60 Years

Dear Colleagues,

The World Bank is soon to be sixty years old, and I think that it is a tribute to the foresight of its founders and the capacity of its managers to know that if it did not exist, we would have to create it in order to do very much of the same things which it currently does, in very much the same way, and with very much the same people.

That said, it is clear that with time the Bank must naturally have lost some of its original vigor and that most definitely the circumstances, challenges, and resources are not the same as those present sixty years ago. So, if we were to recreate this multilateral development effort today, a “new” World Bank, it might turn out to be a somewhat different organization from ours.

I mention this as lately, for instance in the discussions of voices, it is clear that having to look through a glass colored by the Bank’s day-to-day realities (and all the special interests that have evolved with time, whether internal or external) makes it very difficult for management and ourselves to visualize what changes are required.

In this respect I would suggest that, as a Board, we could benefit immensely from an in-depth and outside view as to how the World Bank should have been organized, had it been born today. The nonbinding conclusion of such a study that could be provided for instance by a diversified work group of creative, wise, and credible personalities, could most probably provide us with a better vision of what we all should strive to achieve. It is only by painting the green valley you want to reach that you can muster the sufficient will to get there.

Is there any support out there to make the study I propose a part of the roadmap of voices and the so many other issues we are grappling with? Perhaps a 60 Years Development Committee?

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006

Saturday, January 01, 2005

On our own (World Bank) governance: A real choir of voices

Dear Colleagues,

Experience is said to be something you can gain only when things don’t go as you’ve planned. In the same vein, what is the purpose of an Executive Director if he is just going to sit around and agree? Friends, as we recently spoke again about the importance of voices let us remember that 100 voices saying the same message might sound nice but still be only a Gregorian chant, while a harmonious choir requires many different voices (and now also some noises).

Per

Extract from Voice and Noise 2006