Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, died on Tuesday in New York. He was 86.
The Sydney-born banker was president of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005 and effectively mentored Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Wolfensohn, whose reforms as the head of the World Bank Group for a decade made him known as a champion of the world’s poor.
Throughout his time at the helm, he led its transformation, “increasing decentralization, advancing the Bank technologically, and making the organization more open and transparent,” World Bank Group President David Malpass said in a statement on Wednesday.
Malpass added that under Wolfensohn’s presidency, the Washington-based organization “sharpened its focus on poverty reduction and redoubled its efforts to combat corruption, give voice to the poor and magnify the impact of development investments.”
Arriving at the bank’s Washington headquarters to begin his first five-year term, he found life there too comfortable and its staff members demoralized — a professional malaise, he said, that had them denigrating the bank to their families and even to the news media.
He immediately attacked the bank’s “complacency and insularity,” as he put it. He found that the bank’s emphasis on technocratic, market-based reforms was inhibiting its central mission: aiding the world’s poorest countries.
“I was throwing a grenade into an entrenched culture,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “A Global Life: My Journey Among Rich and Poor, From Sydney to Wall Street to the World Bank.”
A priority for Mr. Wolfensohn was to make field visits to poor nations less ceremonial than his predecessors had, and to listen to poor people themselves describe their governance, history and culture.
He mounted a campaign against corruption in World Bank projects, breaking what he called “a wall of silence” on the subject. His efforts led to stepped-up audits and put the issue higher on the agendas of developing countries.
Part of Wolfensohn’s strategy to alleviate global poverty was to accelerate a shift away from difficult-to-maintain infrastructure projects in developing countries to more social-sector lending programs. He also concentrated efforts on rebuilding war-torn countries, including Rwanda and Bosnia.
Under his leadership, the World Bank became one of the largest financiers of primary education, health, HIV/AIDS programs and the environment, according to its website.
Before his appointment by President Bill Clinton and later George W. Bush, Wolfensohn was passed over for the post at the head of the World Bank in 1981. As a result, he founded his own investment banking firm in New York, Wolfensohn & Co.
That’s also around the time he renounced his Australian citizenship to become an American so that he would be eligible for the job in the future.
Okonjo-Iweala also acquired US citizenship in her bid for the role of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and is simply awaiting a formal announcement of her appointment by the global trade body.
Wolfensohn spent most of his life in the U.S. He attended Harvard Business School in 1957 and graduated with a master’s in business administration.
At Harvard, he became friends with billionaire David Rockefeller Jr., according to Bloomberg. “Wolfensohn credited Rockefeller — the grandson of oil baron John D. Rockefeller — with the opportunities he found in his adopted country,” the outlet reported.
He also founded the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Washington think-tank, the Brookings Institution, which focused on anti-poverty programs and global economic governance.
While studying at Harvard Business School, he met Elaine Botwinick, a Wellesley senior who had grown up in Manhattan and New Rochelle, N.Y. They married in 1961 and had three children, Sara, Naomi and Adam.
Ms. Wolfensohn died in August at 83. An advocate for education and the arts, she was an adviser to many boards of directors, including those of American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Teachers College at Columbia University. Thursday would have been the Wolfensohns’ 59th wedding anniversary.
Mr. Wolfensohn is survived by his children and by seven grandchildren.