When sailors turn on their captain, it often ends in shipwreck or retribution. But the World Bank, whose staff rose up against their leader in the spring, has just hauled in some treasure.
On Dec. 14, after nine months' haggling, it persuaded 45 countries -- including unlikely benefactors such as China, Egypt and Latvia -- to give it more than $25 billion, to be bestowed on the world's poorest states over the next three years.
That is 42 percent more than the bank drummed up the last time round, and comes on top of $6.3 billion to compensate it for loan repayments it lost as a result of debt relief. At a time when the International Monetary Fund, a sister institution, faces big job cuts, this infusion of funds was a triumph for multilateralism.
It was also a victory for the bank's new president, Robert Zoellick, who replaced Paul Wolfowitz in July. A confident technocrat, he has reassured Europeans who were unnerved by his neoconservative predecessor's political baggage and lack of direction. Germany, one of the leaders of the spring putsch, stumped up $2.2 billion, and Britain, which pledged $4.3 billion, became the bank's biggest single donor.
Zoellick had raised the ante in this funding round by contributing $3.5 billion to the pot from other bits of the bank's empire. Rather than relending that money to middle-income countries or investing it in the private sector, Zoellick chose to spend it in countries whose annual income per head is less than $1,065. The bank's prospects may have benefited from tumult at the top. Europe's policymakers worked hard to oust Wolfowitz. Why bother, if they were not ready to back his replacement?
Still, Zoellick's pitch in the beg-a-thon differed little from his predecessor's: The bank mobilizes common funds for common aims, as Wolfowitz put it.
The bank is struggling to gauge the impact of its work. It can say it built or repaired more than 22,000 classrooms in the 12 months to June, but it can't tell how much children are learning. So it wants to improve indicators: A road and bridge project in Afghanistan, for example, will judge success by whether the price of commodities in village markets falls to within 15 percent of town prices.
But the bank's recent woes have slowed the drive for closer self-scrutiny -- a need that may well grow as it is called on to oversee projects that are supposed to conserve carbon.
The bank is happy when cash flows smoothly from taxpayers, through its coffers, to governments and projects it supports. But sometimes development is better served by restraint. Free money can stifle a country's tax-raising efforts -- and private enterprise. It can also underwrite misgovernment and malfeasance. Bank staff and shareholders balked when Wolfowitz shifted course to focus more on corruption. After that experience, will their new helmsman dare to rock the boat?