Flirting with corruption at the World Bank

By Peter Heslam
15 May 2007

Being in love with a colleague is not a crime, even if you’re their boss. Paul Wolfowitz, the head of the World Bank, is not the first to find himself in this situation, and he won’t be the last.

Nonetheless, his board is right to be considering his future. Since Mr Wolfowitz took the helm, the World Bank has often repeated its assertion that corruption is ‘the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development’, and so the world’s leading development agency must jealously guard its moral authority.

Having admitted to showing favouritism to a member of staff to whom he is ‘romantically attached’, Mr Wolfowitz’s future is not a private matter. Nor is it an issue just for his aggrieved employees at the Bank – or even its board. It has repercussions for almost half the human race. They are condemned to live on less than $2 a day largely as a consequence of the very corruption the World Bank claims to oppose but with which it has now flirted.

But is the Bank right to make corruption such a priority? After all, it occurs in rich countries, too – only this week, a scandal broke in Britain about prison officers taking bribes from prisoners in return for favours. However, it is rampant in virtually all poor countries and there it strangles the economic growth that could lift people out of poverty.

Without trust, the costs of doing business become prohibitive. The poor are the hardest hit – and the impact on them is compounded by the siphoning-off of resources that could otherwise have gone into the public services on which they especially depend. As the prophets of ancient Israel saw so clearly, corruption inevitably serves the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

Mr Wolfowitz has shown courage in admitting his mistake. He and his board now need wisdom in reaching a decision about his future. But those who in recent years have claimed to speak for the poor in subjecting the World Bank to incessant criticism – and thus undermined its effectiveness – also need to show some courage.

They need to admit that poverty will become history only when we do all we can to ensure that the vices that cause it are overcome by the virtues that foster prosperity. This is what a genuine love for the poor demands. Otherwise, all we have is a romantic attachment.

For further sources and debate about this article, see here.

© Peter Heslam. The author is an associate on the faculty at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity and director of Transforming Business at the University of Cambridge.

Also on Ekklesia: UK government asked to keep up pressure on World Bank; Aid agency calls on World Bank to ditch Wolfowitz; World Bank needs democracy, says Christian Aid; Withhold funds from World Bank say campaigners; Christian Aid says Government has not gone far enough over World Bank; Time to get tough with World Bank and IMF, says Christian Aid; Government to withold contribution to World Bank.

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