Robert Zoellick of the World Bank

Robert Zoellick, present head of the World Bank, came and spoke at the UM Business School today. I went into the talk with a number of personal prejudices, though I attempted to keep an open mind. It’s difficult, though, after having read so much about the World Bank and its deep history of pushing US economic policy on to the world and make life unbearable for developing economies[1].

Zoellick himself has a complex history. In addition to being appointed head of the World Bank in 2007 under GW Bush, Zoellick has served and the Deputy Secretary of State and the US Trade Representative under Bush and, worse yet, was the managing directed of Goldman Sachs. Zoellick served as Executive Vice President of Fannie Mae, and as Deputy Chief of Staff under George Bush, Sr.

Zoellick signed the famous Jan 26, 1998 letter to President Clinton from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), along with Richard Armitage, Robert Kagan and Donald Rumsfeld, that advocated for war against Iraq. PNAC were a neo-conservative think tank who were instrumental in the development of the worst policies of the Bush years, including the failed strategy in Afghanistan and the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Although the group is now defunct, and some of its members, such as Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, have publicly disavowed their links to the group (and its importance), PNAC’s philosophy is summed up in its by-line:

“The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.”

Zoellick was part of the dubious foreign policy advisory group during GW Bush’s 2000 campaign, the Vulcans, which included later World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz, later Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice, Richard Armitage and others. This group would help form the disastrous Bush Doctrine which would appear after the 9/11 attacks.

Zoellick’s laundry list of neo-conservative credentials should give one pause to consider how he would become the leader of a financial institution whose stated goal is “poverty reduction.”

Zoellick’s presentation was essentially a reading of the World Bank PR sheet, listing the five points that Zoellick stated that he hoped to achieve when he became leader of the Bank in 2008. Zoellick was only challenged directly by two groups of individuals. First, was a staged walk-out of people wearing dollar bills over their mouths, intended to distract the audience from Zoellick’s introduction. Second, was a question by Alan Haber, the first President of the Students for a Democratic Society. While he drew sneers and laughs from the audience, he was the only person to mention the World Banks dubious past, specifically, the structural adjustment policies of the 80’s and 90’s, which led to vast declines of health and economy in African countries.

Zoellick was noticeably agitated by Haber’s question and rather bullish in his response. He claimed that the Bank hasn’t endorsed structural adjustment policies for 15 years. The content of his presentation, however, conflicted with this claim.

Zoellick repeatedly called for the liberalizing of markets by developing countries, specifically calling for deeper access of American businesses to developing economies, a view which is essential to neo-liberal thinking. He blatantly referred to the Bank as a means of pursuing United States economic interests though the encouragement of market liberalization in the developing world. Odd, given that the Bank is supposedly an international body. I have long found that conservatives only rail for free markets as much as it benefits themselves. Zoellick proved that he views the liberalization of markets as necessary only in such that it benefits US economic interests.

At numerous times, he called for the privatization of government services, using an example from China to illustrate his point. China recently took the Bank’s advice (and their money) to privatize toll roads in one province of China, emanating Indiana, of all places. Zoellick called government allocation of resources “inefficient,” ironic considering that the World Bank itself is a government body. Zoellick referred to the Bank’s (arguably paternalistic) role in helping to root out political corruption and inefficiency in developing country economies.

Most telling, however, was Zoellick’s attitude of US exceptionalism. He claimed several times, that the United States has an important role to play in insuring world political and economic stability. He called for the United States to remain focused on foreign policy and not to sidetrack itself with its domestic concerns, as it has done since the 2007 economic crisis, but the aims of that foreign policy appear to mostly economically sef-serving. Still, this is clearly a philosophical point of United States hegemony, oft repeated by US right wingers. Zoellick stated flatly, “if the US sidelines itself, it’s going to become a much nastier world.” While this is a point that’s free to be debated, it can be argued that the world has become a nastier place simply because the US refused to sideline itself on certain issues, an historical fact that Zoellick, like other heavy handed right wingers, chooses to overlook. How Zoellick and his conservative bretheren, some of whom are fighting for the next Presidential nomination, presume to maintain US “exceptionalism” in a world of rising economic powers is completely up to speculation.

I sincerely tried to listen to the presentation while being skeptical of the World Bank’s critics[1-3]. However, Zoellick essentially solidified my position that the World Bank is a body that acts solely in the economic interest of the United States. While individuals at the Bank may sincerely wish to better the world and alleviate poverty, it is apparent that the leadership works under narrow, self-interested goals, antiquated economic assumptions, and in a sequestered environment which prevents them from truly seeing the larger economic picture of the world. In addition, the condescending tone that Zoellick takes when referring to developing nations (specifically in SSA) make the entire prospect is rather frightening.


1.    Stein H: Beyond the World Bank agenda: an institutional approach to development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2008.

2.    Stiglitz JE: Globalization and its discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.; 2002.

3.    Cooper F: Africa since 1940: the past of the present. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press; 2002.

3.    Howard S: Economic development and the anatomy of crisis in Africa : from colonialism through structural adjustment. 2000.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

4 responses to “Robert Zoellick of the World Bank”

  1. Fernando-desu says :

    saroojima mo

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