Robert McNamara's Other Legacy: Transforming the World Bank

Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development)
July 8, 2009 9:00 AM

Predictably, and perhaps appropriately, the flood of remembrances of Robert McNamara is focusing on his role as the architect of the Vietnam War. Yet McNamara was also a transformative president of the World Bank, shaping both that institution and the larger development enterprise in ways that are still felt today. McNamara served for 13 years as World Bank president, almost twice the seven years he previously spent as the US defense secretary (both terms set records for length that have yet to be exceeded).

Bob retired from the World Bank two years after I began work there in 1979. But he continued to be intensely involved in global issues, as an advocate for increased development assistance and for reductions in nuclear arms. I remember that he took a keen interest in the 1984 World Development Report [pdf] on population change and development, meeting with the team that I led to provide detailed comments.

His legacy at the World Bank was two-fold. He was the first president to set poverty reduction—real improvements in the lives of poor people—as the Bank's fundamental objective, a goal reflected in the Bank's current tag-line: "Working for a world free of poverty." Less auspiciously, he also brought to the Bank the notion of setting targets for lending—a practice perhaps derived from his numbers-focused approach at Ford and later at the US Defense Department. This had the unintended consequence of creating incentives for Bank staff and management to push money out the door, sometimes with relatively little regard for how it would be used—a practice that still bedevils the Bank's work today.

When we were creating the Center for Global Development in 2001, I invited Bob to serve as an honorary member of our board because I knew he would embrace our mission of conducting rigorous research to improve the policies and practices of the rich countries and the multilateral institutions—prominent among them, the World Bank itself. I was delighted when he accepted.

Looking at the coverage today, I am struck at how very little of it is devoted to his work on development issues. This is especially striking in the Wikipedia account, which devotes barely 100 words in a 5,000 word article to his 13 years at the World Bank. Perhaps some Wikipedians—or retired World Bank staff—will be inspired to fix this. There are plenty of good sources, including the landmark 1,200-page history, The World Bank: Its First Half Century, published by our friends at Brookings and edited by a trio that includes CGD nonresident fellow Devesh Kapur.

Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, is an ex officio board member of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. This was also posted on the Center's website.