The Global Challenge: Strategies for the World Bank Group

Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Global Challenge: Strategies for the World Bank Group


What does social and environmental sustainability mean in the context of the World Bank Group's policies?

Social and environmental sustainability implies a number of things. First, we recognize poverty alleviation will only come about by doing more than simply dealing with the economic dimension of development. The economic dimension is incredibly important; poor people need more money in order to survive and thrive. But if we do not take into account the environmental and ecological dimensions, the sustainability of that economic growth will certainly be jeopardized. And we have a lot of evidence where that could be the case: water resource management, as well as land and forestry, just to name a few.

The other dimension is the social dimension. What we are coming to understand about poverty is that it has to do with much more than simply income. It is the extent to which you are included as part of society, you feel you can make a contribution, and you have the opportunities to make that contribution. So those are the social dimensions of long-term sustainable development. Together with the environmental and economic conditions for sustainable development, these form a three-legged stool. And it is bringing the three together to make sense of them that is very important. I think our sense is that in the very long term, the issues of ecological and social sustainability are going to be as important as economic sustainability. We have done some work with respect to long-term development that envisions the world in 2050. The middle of the century seems like a long way away, but it really is not. It is within the lifetime of our children and grandchildren, and it is within the lifetime of infrastructure projects. By 2050, even considering modest income growth for developing countries mandated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015, we will emerge with a global economy that is today about US$37.5 trillion. We expect a global economy of 140 trillion dollars, adding US$100 trillion to the net global economy. It is very clear that we cannot just pour that amount of money into the global economy and assume everything will be fine. You have to manage that in a way that is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. And I think that is the sort of challenge that we try to think about in the Bank; for instance, how to develop economic work and development work in a way that accounts for these long-term issues.

The World Bank is the primary external funder for a wide range of global initiatives. Have you observed a change in priorities for the Bank with respect to these initiatives in the last decade?

There have certainly been changes in priority for the Bank on many fronts. The first that comes to mind is the focus, or perhaps more appropriately, the refocus on poverty. In the years of World Bank President Robert McNamara, poverty was central to economic policy and then was somewhat lost on the agenda. I think poverty was firmly replaced on the agenda by President James Wolfensohn ten years ago, so the issue of trying to align poverty reduction as both an economic goal and a social and environmental responsibility has created a major change.

The second major change I would mention is our understanding that we live in a world that is much more interconnected than ever before. Therefore, issues of trading, communicable diseases, demographic change, migration, environmental connectedness, climate change, and biodiversity have all really shaped the World Bank's role into being much more of a global institution, taking a global view and getting involved in global issues, like climate change. These issues were the sorts of things that environmental conventions were set up to deal with over the past ten years and they have all appreciably shaped our agenda. It is not so much just the World Bank changing, but the framework in which we operate has quite clearly changed enormously as well. …

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