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Sumir Lal : Bob Zoellick welcome to the World Bank and thank you for being with us.
Robert Zoellick : Thank you for having me.
Sumir Lal : So, tell us, what does the World Bank mean to you, and in particular how do you view your job ?
Robert Zoellick : Well, you know, I think coming into the World Bank at a time, back from the trip I just took around the world, I am delighted to say that there is a very high regard for the Bank and its people, but also a recognition that there are new challenges ahead. Anybody who has been involved with international affairs over the past years knows the tremendous changes in globalization—some of the developing countries have been able to capture the benefits, some in Africa have still struggled to try to do so. Real changes in terms of global capital flows, increase in global labor force, and so I think one of the challenges now is, how does the Bank, some 60 years after its founding, adapt to those new challenges ?
And I am very proud and honored to be associated with what I think is a first-rate group of people. People that are drawn to the Bank because of this mission and it gives me an opportunity to work with them to try to take on these challenges, whether it be for the poorest, the Millennium Development Goals in Africa, the middle-income countries, the global climate change, fragile states, a whole host of questions and since it is my first day I am really still drinking from a fire hose in terms of learning from the people here.
Sumir Lal : But, on this trip that you made to Latin America, Africa and Europe, what did you hear and what were the kind of people you met ?
Robert Zoellick : I am very pleased I was able to take the trip, because starting now, I want to focus heavily on my interaction with the staff of the World Bank, but this trip gave me a chance to meet some of the key stakeholders ; and in Africa, I visited West Africa, East Africa and southern Africa. I had a chance to meet government officials primarily, but some NGOs as well. And there, one had the sense of the diversity of a continent that some countries are struggling either with conflict or post-conflict environments—some are moving forward with some acceleration for growth. There is a real strong interest in sub-regional integration and as part of that, while the leaders with whom I spoke were interested in the social development, they also wanted to stress the foundations for economic growth and building savings and investment in Africa.
So, infrastructure projects, energy projects, projects that would help a region be able to take advantage of open trade markets, so roads and transportation and others. Europe was primarily an opportunity to meet some of the major donors—so I was in London, Paris, Brussels where I met with the Commission as well as the European Parliament ; Berlin, where I met all the European countries the German EU Presidency put together. But I also went to Norway because Norway has always played a large role in the development area and they have brought together some of the Nordic countries.
And there was again the belief that the Bank can play a critical role, but a recognition that there are many other players in the development system and so it is a challenge for what is the Bank’s comparative advantage, to what degree is it a catalyst, to what degree it exerts leadership, and a focus on some of the issues I know have been of a great sensitivity, like corruption and governance saying that those are very important and that for donor counties they needed reassurance on that issue, particularly as we approach the IDA process where we are looking for big contributions over the next three years.
Then Latin America gave me a chance to meet some of the middle-income countries, particularly Mexico and Brazil, but I also, when in Mexico, met four of the central American countries and I worked a lot with those countries and that was also a good opportunity to see some of the problems of smaller developing countries. Last week, I also had a chance to meet some of the leaders of the Caribbean countries, so you saw the issues of the small island states.
And again, just looking over the full sort of horizon of those countries, a real appreciation for the expertise of the Bank staff, a real respect for the people that are in the Country Offices that they work with, people on the ground ; a sense of wanting to try to move with greater speed, get loans approved, get projects moving more quickly, a sense that, in terms of some of the products, that there may need to be evolutions for the marketplace, for the middle-income countries that have access to global capital markets. They want the Bank’s expertise but they are trying to figure out what is the right package and composition—and a sense that people very much wanted to work with the Bank but the Bank also needed to be close to its clients in understanding the challenges ahead.
So, it was a nice combination. Shortly before that I was in Southeast Asia with my prior employer and also the Middle East, and I want to get back to those regions but this gave me a good sort of initial taste of that environment.
Sumir Lal : When you were on that plane and looking down from 30,000 feet, what are the big trends in the world that struck you and how do you see the international organizations needing to adapt to them ?
Robert Zoellick : Well, most of the time I am on a plane, I am either reading or sleeping. So, I am afraid I was not looking down from 30,000 feet, but it’s an interesting question.
I think it’s helpful to look in different categories, at the level of geopolitics and geo-economics. I think if you step back from the current period, two of the biggest challenges are the rise of China in the international system and its integration into the system along with other countries in East and South Asia. So, the countries of Southeast Asia, ASEAN, India as well—how that integration occurs ; labor and capital market together—is going be critical for opportunity as well as security issues.
The second one in that category is, I think, sort of the struggle with modernity in the Islamic World and you know you have got some people that are trying to go back to the seventh century, some trying to adapt to the 21st century. I worked a lot with countries in the broader Middle East due to my work in the trade area and I think one of the questions will be how to help those who want to try to create opportunity and hope in that area.
A second trend is obviously that driven by transnational forces, international financial flows and capital, communications, transportation. So, all the issues that take a world and draw it closer together. So, the questions of integration and interdependence and part of the institutional part of the, or the answer to your question is you know how do those connect in terms of existing processes and structures, institutions like the World Bank, how they change roles of nation states, and this covers everything from health issues to questions of international terrorism or trade flows.
A third area that I have been particularly interested in is that if you take the period say, since the end of the Cold War, there have been two huge developments in a historic perspective that I don’t think people have fully factored in ; one is—this is a slight exaggeration but it gives you a sense—the international labor force is tied in the market economy ; [it] has gone from about 1 billion to about 4 billion, and people can quarrel with the numbers but it’s the order of magnitude that is the same and it does not surprisingly, that’s had a huge effect in terms of how the world economy adapts to that. I think it also had an effect in terms of generally dampening prices, is that that additional labor force has taken part in the world economy.
Although you have to be careful, because if you are looking at world commodity markets you get a different effect. What is intriguing about that is that you normally would have expected some shift in the relative values of labor and capital, but at the same time you have got a big savings pool that is partly a function of energy rents, energy prices, but is also a function of some of the reserves that have been created in different countries in part of response to the ‘97 financial crisis. But also some of the saving rates, for example in China, which is not just individual savings but it is also the business savings and government savings. So, you take these two phenomena—much expanded labor force, large savings pool—and I think this is one of the things that’s created a large liquidity in the international marketplace, along with generally dampening prices.
Now, what you see going on in financial markets now is sort of a re-assessment of some of the risk profile from that liquidity. So, you saw it first in the United States in the mortgage market, now you seen it in terms of credit spreads and others. My own view is you will get these shifts in terms of cycles, but I think in terms of the larger structural change these phenomena I described have a long way to work, and then you bring this back to the development issue and you ask, well, what are implications of this ; and for China and India, and Southeast Asia there are one set of possibilities ; for the developed world it’s very important.
I used a phrase in one of my early statements, about sustainable globalization, and I think one of the challenges for the Bank today is how it works with others to try to help the poorest countries, particularly Africa, take advantage of these changes, and get on this train of opportunity. The middle-income countries—how they continue to benefit from it, with some of the dangerous fragilities ; but and also for the developed countries to recognize they can’t turn away from this, they can’t live in a world where they are isolated and separated from these phenomena ; whether it be capital flows, integration flows, or others. And so the developed country also has a real interest in creating success. So, for me this is a wonderful opportunity to step into a leadership role at the Bank at a time you have got some fascinating changes historically and whether the trends be sort of geo-economic, or also in the larger view of political context.
Sumir Lal : Well, it seems like you came back with a pretty big agenda of things to do ; can you tell us what sort of a person you are to work with ? And what do you look for in the people who work for you ?
Robert Zoellick : Well I suppose—the most fair way, you really need to interview the people with whom I worked, so you can get a sense from them. But, by nature I am very straightforward, what you see is what you get. I am open, I value a multiplicity of views, I like to have good discussions, but I also like to have a sense of strategic direction. I always believe if you don’t know what it is you are going to accomplish, you have no chance of accomplishing it ; you might not accomplish it anyway, but if you don’t know where you are going, you are surely not going to get there. But much of my career has been trying to combine a sense of strategy with operations ; how to combine that sense of direction with some real results orientation.
So, what I look for in people is a sense of again how to combine the incredible knowledge, expertise, experience here with a focus on results, and I think some humility. I mean, development as all of us, you know, I first took my first course in development in 1973. Just got an email from my Professor—fortunately a positive one—and one of the things that one has to recognize is the humility because it’s a difficult field. Some things work ; we have had to learn as we go along.
Pedro Malan of Brazil made a point to me that I really liked which is, “The Bank is not really just a knowledge institution, it’s a learning institution ; it’s not just a university where knowledge exists in some separated environment from reality ; it’s a question of learning everyday,” and so what I hope to try to do is learn from the people here, try to get some sense of what our priority should be and work with the management and the staff to try to adjust to these changes that we’ve talked about in the international environment, bringing those points together.
From the visit I came with a sense of a very strong interest in the World Bank’s role in terms of whether it be global public goods issues and climate change, whether it be for the poorest countries and middle-income countries, and so there is no shortage of fascinating things to get on with. The question is how do we best do so together.
Sumir Lal : Coming down to the personal side. We know that you are a marathon runner.
Robert Zoellick : I used to be a marathon runner. I’m a little older now.
Sumir Lal : We know that you have got two cats and two rabbits. We know that you are a military history buff. Who are the people in history who really were your heroes or would strike you at any particular episode ?
Robert Zoellick : Well, it really is—it’s broader than military history. I really love history as a field. I love it across countries, and it gave me actually a foundation in the various jobs that I had in trade or foreign affairs or others, because it gave me some appreciation of other people and cultures. So, in terms of figures, I obviously respect people who’ve brought some of the enlightenment thinking to different countries of the world and have done so with a certain sense of courage and principle.
I still think Abraham Lincoln was the tremendous figure. I like to read a lot about different historic eras, just to get a sense for what—how individuals fit into their times and the circumstances and so, for my own interest, it’s been a combination of taking that historic foundation, add to it some knowledge of economics and then later finance, law, public policy, and try to figure out how to integrate those effectively together with the help of others.
Sumir Lal : Bob Zoellick, thank you very much.
Robert Zoellick : My pleasure.
Sumir Lal : All the best.
Robert Zoellick : Thanks for inviting me.
Source : Interviewed by Sumir Lal, Head of Internal Communications, World Bank, July 2, 2007