World Bank changes tack to face new challengers
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced this month the ambitious agenda, that would boost shared prosperity in each of its 188 member countries.
Late last year, the Bank waded into less familiar territory, compared to its past role as a development lender.
It published an alarming report on global warming that forecast "devastating" effects from an expected temperature rise of 4.0 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.
Such new tacks are not surprising, said Jacob Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
"In all bureaucratic organizations, they will naturally seek to set new goals in order to be relevant," he said.
For the World Bank, the timing may be crucial to maintain its 66-year role as the world's leading development lender.
While sibling institution the IMF leads the battle against Europe's debt crisis, the World Bank is facing new competition from cash-rich emerging economies to its key traditional role -- lending for infrastructure projects crucial for development in poorer countries.
Holding the world's largest reserves, at $3.4 trillion in March, China for instance has massively invested in Africa, financing infrastructure projects without demanding the same conditions from host governments that the World Bank would.
The evolving challenge crossed a threshold last March in Durban, South Africa, where the BRICS countries -- including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- announced their own development bank to rival the Western-dominated World Bank.
Still in the planning stage, the BRICS bank is aimed mainly at infrastructure deals and has prompted speculation that it could eventually marginalize the World Bank.
"This is a challenge to the World Bank to up its game and ensure its structures and programs adapt to a world in which emerging economies have an ever greater part to play on the world stage," a spokesman for Oxfam, Didier Jacobs, told AFP.
"The power balance is so much towards the advanced countries. It's definitely not a level playing field and the BRICS countries got frustrated because of that," said Sunita Dubey of Vashuda Foundation, an Indian nongovernmental organization.
Kim, who took the reins of the World Bank last July, firmly defended its importance and said even the BRICS themselves still need the Washington-based institution.
"I really have no doubt in my own mind about our continued relevance for a very long time," he told a news conference Thursday.
"We have very specific comparative advantages. Knowledge is one of them," he said.
He said the BRICS bank is "a natural extension" of the need for more investment in infrastructure in developing countries.
"Whatever other banks are built, there is plenty of infrastructure that needs to go around, and our sense is that they would want to take advantage of the knowledge that we have.
Oxfam says the World Bank should compete on the "quality" of its work and set "the highest standards" in development finance to remain relevant.
Even so, during the Washington meetings the Group of 24 emerging countries endorsed Kim's new anti-poverty agenda but criticized the lender, calling for more "flexibility" and "responsiveness" in its policies and instruments.
In terms of sheer financial resources, the World Bank cannot compete with the big emerging powers but it can count on its expertise -- and the time factor, Kirkegaard said.
"The World Bank may have temporarily lost its dominance status, but at some point in time Chinese outflows may be considerably smaller than today," especially if the world's second-largest economy slows, he said.
Weak global economy key worry as IMF, World Bank meet
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde expressed fresh concern over the "three-speed recovery" in the world's largest economies -- stagnating Europe and Japan, the sluggish United States, and quicker-moving emerging economies.
That the three groups of countries are moving at distinctly different speeds "is not the healthiest recovery that we could think of," she said.
"What we need is a full-speed global economy."
The IMF meetings opened amid stress and frustration that, as the large economies still have not fully returned to growth after the 2008 financial crisis, small economies remained vulnerable to the continued turbulence.
Finger-pointing about excessive austerity and lack of support for demand, unmanageable capital flows stoked by central banks pumping out money, competitive devaluations, excessive sovereign debt and papered-over banking weaknesses were all in the open ahead of the meetings.
More than four years after the financial crisis battered the globe, "we're still in the process of getting out of the crisis," complained Luis Videgaray Caso, Mexico's finance minister and chairman of the G24 group of emerging and developing countries.
The G24 especially voiced concern about "the negative spillover effects on the emerging and developing countries of prolonged unconventional monetary policies."
Those policies -- pumping heavy amounts of monetary liquidity into economies to get them into gear -- have the IMF and central bankers themselves nervous and needing to craft "exit strategies" to avoid deeper disruptions.
Lagarde said that, worldwide, central banks have entered "uncharted territory" with their massive monetary stimulus.
Still, Lagarde urged more stimulus for the short term, telling journalists that countries like Spain and the United States could do well to pull back slightly from immediate efforts to shrink their budget deficits, and that the European Central Bank has room to cut interest rates to spur growth.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said that sentiment to pull back from austerity in Europe was growing.
"Everyone understands now that adding austerity on top of recession would be a serious mistake," he assured.
Little concrete action on the big issues was expected from the IMF and World Bank sessions.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim sought to hold attention to the challenge of poverty alleviation in poorer nations and, as well, the need for more action to battle climate change.
Even though developing countries are growing well relative to the advanced economies, accounting now for half of global growth, he said, there is a wide disparity of conditions among them that allows extreme poverty to persist.
"I have no doubt that the world can end extreme poverty within a generation," he said.
But on the sidelines of the meetings Thursday and Friday, the finance ministers and central bankers of the Group of 20 advanced economies were meeting on some key issues, including advancing efforts to rein in tax evasion and boost banking transparency around the world.
The G20 is expected to weigh endorsing a global effort to force banks to automatically share information with countries seeking to tax their nationals holding secret offshore accounts -- an effort that could deal a blow to tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Switzerland and others.
It remained unclear how far the G20 will go. At least the United States and France are said to be hoping for a strong endorsement.
"A door toward the end of banking secrecy is open. It is something extremely important," said Moscovici.
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In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts.
It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.
Foreign firms farm the land to consolidate their hold over global food markets, the report said.
They also use land to "make room" for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers.
"This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism," the report said.
The Oakland Institute said it released its findings after studying land deals in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali and Mozambique.
It said hedge funds and other speculators had, in 2009 alone, bought or leased nearly 60m hectares of land in Africa - an area the size of France.
In the field
When I visited Lungi-Lol in rural Sierra Leone I saw men hoeing thousands of hectares of farmland owned by Addax, a Swiss-based bio-energy company.
They are growing sugarcane to produce biofuels.
Campaigners say this contributes to food insecurity, but many people here welcome Addax's presence.
Francis Koroma, who works on the farm, says: "We thank God for Addax. I am gainfully employed and I receive about $70 (£46) a month. Before, I spent a whole year without getting $50."
Villagers are unaware of the controversy surrounding biofuels.
Abdulai Conteh , a local traditional leader, said: "Some people are doing business here but I have no idea what they are doing with our land. I see them growing sugarcane. That's all I know."
It added that some firms obtained land after deals with gullible traditional leaders or corrupt government officials.
"The research exposed investors who said it is easy to make a deal - that they could usually get what they wanted in exchange for giving a poor tribal chief a bottle of Johnnie Walker [whisky]," said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.
"When these investors promise progress and jobs to local chiefs it sounds great, but they don't deliver."
The report said the contracts also gave investors a range of incentives, from unlimited water rights to tax waivers.
"No-one should believe that these investors are there to feed starving Africans.
"These deals only lead to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors," said Obang Metho of Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia, a US-based campaign group.
However, not all companies named in the report accept that their motives are as suggested and they dismiss claims that their presence in Africa is harmful.
One company, EmVest Asset Management, strongly denied that it was involved in exploitative or illegal practices.
"There are no shady deals. We acquire all land in terms of legal tender," EmVest's Africa director Anthony Poorter told the BBC.
He said that in Mozambique the company's employees earned salaries 40% higher than the minimum wage.
The company was also involved in development projects such as the supply of clean water to rural communities.
"They are extremely happy with us," Mr Poorter said.