Published for www.washingtonpost.com, March 20, 2012
Americans and Europeans will remember the last several years as a period of economic insecurity. But the economic history of our times will be recounted very differently in the rest of the world. As developed nations have struggled with financial instability and unsustainable debt, developing economies have raised hundreds of millions out of poverty. Our long economic winter is a pleasant summer in distant places.
According to the World Bank, extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.25 a day — has been declining in every developing region. The first Millennium Development Goal set by the United Nations — to cut the global rate of extreme poverty in half between 1990 and 2015 — was achieved in 2010, well ahead of schedule. Much of the good news has come in emerging markets such as Brazil, China and India. But on the African continent, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen below 50 percent for the first time since 1981.
As president of the World Bank since 2007, Bob Zoellick has seen this mixture of global economic panic and progress as closely as anyone. When he steps down in June, he will leave the rarest of legacies: a multilateral institution with its reputation enhanced. Zoellick acted decisively to help stabilize the finances of struggling nations during the worst of the financial crisis, as well as to provide relief to countries hit hard by a worldwide spike food prices. He has increased transparency at the bank while successfully raising funds to recapitalize it.
Zoellick is the most rigorous and unsentimental of idealists. During an interview in his office, he explained recent progress against global poverty in two words: “economic growth.” And growth is mainly a function of the policies and attitudes of nations themselves. “Development does not work unless local people own it,” says Zoellick. “If local people haven’t decided to do what it takes, it won’t happen.”