Lending to the Poor: With Billions in its Coffers, the World Bank Wants to Save the Planet

By Klaus Brinkbšumer

From its earliest days, the World Bank has been a lightning rod for criticism -- mostly relating to a slew of failed projects. But in recent years the Bank has shifted its strategy, working more closely with client countries and battling African corruption. Have those efforts made it a more effective institution?

A slum in Lagos, Nigeria
Markus Matzel

A slum in Lagos, Nigeria

The day is meant to mark the emergence of a new Africa, a peaceful and progressive continent. But it's a day like any other for the World Bank, a muggy, lethargic afternoon in West Africa, and Mats Karlsson is running late.

He walks into the lounge at the airport in the Ghanaian capital of Accra and sits down on an armrest, listening to the second boarding call for his flight to Monrovia in Liberia. Karlsson, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, rests his head on his right hand as he makes a call to Washington to request another $10 million. Then he calls someone in Sierra Leone and demands "power -- 24/7." After quickly checking his e-mails and sending a few hasty responses using abbreviations, he boards his flight to Liberia. As always, Karlsson is the last person on board and, as always, the flight is held for him.

Karlsson is constantly being courted in Africa. He's the money man. He hardly ever wears suits anymore, rarely in Washington and never in Africa -- where today he's wearing an orange-colored, embroidered African shirt -- because clothing offers a way of either connecting with people or alienating them. For Karlsson gaining the confidence of those he is here to save is critical. His work for the World Bank reflects his employer's emphasis on seeking the right balance between distance and proximity to its customers. When it comes to saving the world, achieving that balance is paramount.

Headquartered in Washington, the World Bank lends up to $25 billion a year to promote development in poor countries. In return, it demands the building of civil societies, an end to corruption and, more recently, efforts to protect the environment. The organization, which distributes startup money, is both an opinion-maker and a political force. It is both the largest multilateral financial backer of all developing countries and an organization with the power to educate, reprimand and penalize.

The World Bank's leaders believe they play a necessary role. "We stand with our backs to the wall; things are not moving forward," says Karlsson, the bank's Director for West Africa, speaking quietly in English. "Either we succeed in solving the problems soon or, within a few decades, we will be living in a mess that we can't even imagine today." When Karlsson says "we," he means all of mankind.

"To solve the problem of poverty you have to be very focused on your work because the problems of poverty are so very different. But without solving the problem of poverty, we will not solve the problems of the atmosphere, the forests, the oceans and energy, because you cannot explain how important the environment is to poor people in China and Africa if they are starving. This is why we must think both globally and technically at the same time."

That was what Karlsson said recently in his office in Accra, on the second floor of the World Bank's white bungalow in the city's North Ridge neighborhood. As his twin daughters, Alexandra and Xenia, sat behind his desk between stacks of paper, playing on the computer, Karlsson explained that the real issue was whether we would manage "to leave a better world to our children."

If that is the bottom line, we don't seem to be doing a very good job. There are many passionate people working at both the World Bank and the United Nations, people who do manage to prevail over the occasional famine -- but it seems they're always a step behind the curve when it comes to preventing newer and more severe crises. They are never powerful enough to bring about a real change in direction. And they are constantly hampered by individual interests, including those of the World Bank's 184 member states, the organization's 24 executive directors, the interests of the United States in particular and, most importantly, the bank's financial backers.

The Liberian test case

The West African nation of Liberia is the bank's current benchmark. Liberia will provide answers to the question of how important the World Bank can be in an age when China is offering African countries a fortune in return for their natural resources. Liberia "is an opportunity of utmost historical importance," Karlsson writes in memos to his staff.

On the day Africa was supposed to change, Karlsson flew from Accra to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Monrovia is a muddy place filled with crumbling gray buildings that house government ministries faced with a shortage of employees because computer skills are a rarity among Liberians. If the city is still plagued by high murder and crime rates, the surrounding countryside is even worse off, lacking clean water, electricity and roads. Liberia occasionally receives loans of up to $130 million, almost half of which never even turns up in government budgets but disappears into the pockets of corrupt officials. It's hot and humid in Monrovia; the air is laden with the sweet and sickly odor of swampland. Karlsson climbs into a Toyota that will take him into the city. He makes a few more calls to Washington and responds to e-mail. Karlsson wants to help Liberia.

Building an infrastructure -- roads, bridges, harbors -- represents the core of development work in countries like this one. It's Karlsson's job to hire companies, search for skilled workers and negotiate with foreign corporations. The World Bank is essentially importing public spirit and attempting to teach maturity and self-sufficiency to villagers. Villages are given funds and allowed to determine which projects they wish to pursue and promote, even if building sorely needed schools is all too often ignored. Another of the Bank's daunting tasks in Liberia is to develop the country's administration and a sense of responsibility among its bureaucrats.

The Bank's Monrovia office employs a staff of 22. A poster in the building's conference room touts the slogan, "Our dream is a world without poverty." Generators hum in the background. Anyone who works for the Bank in cities like Lagos or Monrovia, in countries like Nigeria or Liberia, essentially lives for the Bank. The employees may endure frequent power outages and hear gunshots at night, but they can also spend their evenings drinking Heineken on the terrace of the Mamba Point Hotel, listening to the roar of the Atlantic. They live in a world of aid workers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). World Bank employees have little contact with the local population, and conversation frequently turns back to the Bank itself.

Misgivings are common among those who work here. Everything moves so slowly, and Africa can be such a maddeningly destructive place. Governments want money and respect, but what do they do in return? At the 2004 conference of donors, $520 million were raised to help Liberia. The country's plight had touched the world's heartstrings -- but where should that money go?

Liberia's 3.3 million people have seen 14 years of civil war, torture and mass murder. Its young people are a lost generation, a generation of uneducated people. Many of Liberia's younger generation were child soldiers under former military leaders Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, 10-year-olds kept high on drugs to break down the barriers to committing murder with machetes and Kalashnikovs. Today they are adults who sit in the dust, still high on drugs -- both perpetrators and victims from a bygone era. These are the people that organizations like the World Bank hope to convince that the future is still worth something, and that freedom and initiative are values worth pursuing.

World Bankers like Karlsson constantly have to lower their expectations. They lead a fast-paced life. Armed with mountains of international experience, they acclimate easily to places like Africa's jungles, but that same experience makes it more difficult for them to accept the limited horizons of these people, the would-be beneficiaries of their hard work.

Europe's comforts, Africa's miseries

Karlsson, a Swedish citizen, is 50 years old. He studied philosophy, economics and music. He has played the double bass in Weimar, Prague and Vienna, even serving a stint with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Stockholm. He speaks six languages and once worked as chief economist for the Swedish Foreign Ministry. He met his wife, a Czech, in Prague. Their daughters were born in Sweden but raised in Washington and Accra; they speak English, Swedish and Czech. Although he's already served as vice president of the World Bank, Karlsson decided to "work in the field again, where you find out whether the work you do is effective in the long run."

World Banker Mats Karlsson in Ghana: Seeing the trees and finding the forest through the trees.
Klaus Brinkbšumer / DER SPIEGEL

World Banker Mats Karlsson in Ghana: Seeing the trees and finding the forest through the trees.

"We are seeing small successes, but the big ones are simply not there," Karlsson says. "Life in Europe is so safe and secure, and there is no excuse for our inability to transfer some of that security to the rest of the world."

Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that people who think like Karlsson are the product of a European elite. They are sufficiently competent and curious to make compassion the basis of their work, but they are also part of a rare breed. Too many Europeans isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and those who grow up in crisis regions are incapable of thinking beyond the confines of their own lives.

There may also be too many crisis regions.

Karlsson drives through the city, stopping to meet with colleagues from the UN. He listens to the concerns of his staff members, meets the US ambassador for lunch, develops new computer models and finally meets the president. After four hours of sleep, he wakes up to do it again -- another day for a new Africa.

One of Karlsson's biggest concerns in Liberia is illiteracy and the lack of basic education. One of his current successes is the new road to the airport. It makes getting out of Liberia a lot easier.

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