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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 395-400

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Book Review

The World Bank: Its First Half Century.
Volume 1: History. Volume 2: Perspectives

The World Bank: Its First Half Century. Volume 1: History. Volume 2: Perspectives. Edited by Devesh Kapur, John P. Lewis, and Richard Webb. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997.

Anniversaries inspire the production of volumes to mark them. The works in question here--The World Bank: Its First Half Century, Volume 1: History, and Volume 2: Perspectives--have clearly been commissioned in this spirit. These studies supplement the book that celebrated the institution's first quarter century, entitled The World Bank since Bretton Woods, by Edward Mason and Robert Asher, published in 1973. When that volume appeared, some concern was expressed about the fact that the coauthors were Americans and that their nationality might condition their treatment of the subject matter. 1 The materials now before us are so compiled that there can be no risk that the presentation can be faulted for narrowness in authorial viewpoint. Of the three principals--who wrote all save one chapter of volume 1 and who were responsible for the overall organization of the project--one is an American, another Peruvian, and the third is an Indian national. That the agenda can accommodate a multiplicity of viewpoints is further assured by the structure of volume 2. This portion of the project is devoted primarily to the way the World Bank is viewed by various external constituencies. Individual chapters are devoted to analyses of the Bank's activities in specific countries and/or regions, for example, Korea, Mexico, South Asia, Africa. In addition, official attitudes toward the Bank [End Page 395] in the United States and Japan are examined, along with the relationship of the Bank to its Bretton Woods twin, the International Monetary Fund. The editors recognize with regret that one of the latter-day features of the Bank's activities is not represented in this voluminous assemblage of case studies. The fall of the Berlin Wall has been too recent to permit systematic scholarly inquiry into the Bank's relations with countries in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union.

Altogether there are some eighteen contributors to nearly 2,000 pages of rather dense text. This format self-evidently assures a healthy pluralism. But it also means that what we have here is not exactly a conventional institutional history: the presentation, for example, lacks a continuous chronological story line. The multiple-author approach also means that there is a fair amount of repetition in the various narratives. Even so, the editors should be congratulated for allocating space for the views of a substantial number of the Bank's critics. A project that puts the critiques prominently on the record--and which thus facilitates serious appraisal of their respective strengths and weaknesses--should be welcomed as the Bank proceeds to rethink its direction. The international financial meltdowns--beginning in South Asia in 1997 and extending well beyond in time and space--are outside the scope of these studies. That turn of events, however, has presented the Bank with perhaps the most serious challenge it has yet faced.

These volumes will assuredly take their place as the standard work of reference for anyone seeking enlightenment on the way the Bank has been organized and reorganized. (Each new Bank president, it would appear, has felt duty-bound to undertake the latter task.) To readers of this journal, other matters are likely to be of more compelling interest. Two themes addressed are especially worthy of comment: (1) the Bank's continuing quest to define its principal mission in a world that has undergone massive shifts in international power relationships; and (2) the Bank's role as both a consumer and a producer of ideas on economic development. These themes are intertwined throughout the text.

A reader of these volumes cannot fail to be struck by a tension between the institution's conception of itself as a bank and also as a development agency--an issue that has been on the scene...


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