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World: Bank President Tackles Some Difficult Issues

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, was once an Australian air force officer, and something of the concise manner of the military man still clings to him. His briefings for the media are always informative, but rarely exciting -- although they do deal with big issues. So it was in Prague yesterday, where Wolfensohn crisply addressed journalists on the World Bank's plans soon after arriving from a 22-hour flight from Sydney. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke was at the press conference, held on the margins of the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, or IMF.

Prague, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- James Wolfensohn tackled some big themes when he spoke to journalists gathered in the Czech capital yesterday (Thursday) for the annual World Bank/IMF meetings.

He called poverty the "central challenge of our time," and said that peace in the world -- including peace for the industrialized Western countries -- cannot be achieved unless there is stability and economic growth in the developing countries. He noted most of the wealth in the world is in the hands of a relatively small population group, and that the wealth gap is increasing, rather than decreasing.

But, Wolfensohn said, everyone must recognize that the world is one. It is interdependent not only economically, he noted, but on issues as different as international crime and AIDS.

He said debt relief for the poorest countries is high on the World Bank's agenda and it aims to deliver that to 20 countries by the end of this year. The question of debt relief has become a rallying cry for the anti-globalization movement, whose activists deride the ongoing efforts of the creditor countries as slow, self-interested and ineffective.

Large-scale anti-globalization demonstrations are expected in Prague in the coming days, but Wolfensohn said his personal view of them is "not wholly negative" by any means. He said such events show the growing awareness about issues such as equity, poverty, and globalization.

There is much for all sides to discuss and to learn, he added, and now is a good time to do that, given the current strong global economic growth. He noted that 350 non-governmental organizations are registered to participate in the World Bank/IMF annual meetings.

Defending the relevance of the World Bank and is assistance programs, Wolfensohn said:

"We're dealing everywhere from Central Asia -- on issues of poverty, and again structure [reform] -- through to Georgia where, again, we're working on corruption and on community development, to Russia where we're assisting the government on its current [economic] plans, and the countries in Central and Southern Europe for their accession [to the European Union.]"

Wolfensohn noted the differences in the rates of development among the transition countries. He said that the states of south-central Europe, including the Balkans, have been more successful than those of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

He said the main reason for this is the greater degree of structural reform in south-central Europe, which is creating the framework that allows the transition from a communist system to a market-based economy.

Referring specifically to Russia, Wolfensohn said the reform plan recently presented by President Vladimir Putin has accurately identified major structural matters to be tackled. He said Putin's concerns with reform of the financial and legal systems, with ending corruption, and settling federal-regional relations, were all key issues in achieving progress.

Turning to Yugoslavia, an outcast from most international activities, Wolfensohn said the World Bank wants to help -- when conditions are appropriate:

"We'll have to take a look at what happens in the elections. We're certainly anxious, at the right moment, to assist Serbia."

The elections, to be held Sunday (Sept 24), may be a watershed for Yugoslavia. If internationally discredited President Slobodan Milosevic loses power, the way could stand open for Yugoslavia to return to the international community. Wolfensohn underlined that Serbia's moribund economy and the people's growing poverty need attention. When it comes to human needs, he said, "there is a real case to go back and do more lending in Serbia."