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Opinion

Positive verdict on Wolfensohn

Paul Wolfowitz's controversial nomination as World Bank president is overshadowing valedictory verdicts on James Wolfensohn's 10 years in the role.

Redressing the balance is The World's Banker, an entertaining review of the Wolfensohn decade written by financial journalist Sebastian Mallaby.

Mallaby praises Wolfensohn's emphasis on tackling corruption and on debt relief but criticizes the Bank's lack of focus under Wolfensohn, who favoured a policy of "comprehensiveness" which failed to prioritize key projects country-by-country.

Overall the verdict is positive. Abandoning conditional lending and getting borrower countries to select their own development targets and timetables has improved the Bank's image. And Mallaby credits Wolfensohn with decentralizing its management, albeit in his egocentric, 'hand-grenade' style. Wolfensohn fought with colleagues and with the board to get Bank country directors into the field and away from Washington.

"This is a humbler, less hectoring vision of the Bank," Mallaby writes. If there's a lesson for Wolfowitz, it is his predecessor's failure to curb meddling by the Bank's shareholders from the developed world.

And it's always great to be reminded of your favourite Wolfensohn stories. Mallaby relates his greeting to the Bank's country director in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis.

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