Alleviating African poverty is 'a first priority,' Wolfowitz says

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday that reducing poverty and supporting economic development in Africa will be his top priority, along with modernizing the bank’s cumbersome bureaucracy, streamlining its process for financing development, encouraging environment-friendly development projects and fighting corruption.

In his first extended interview since succeeding James Wolfensohn on June 1, the former deputy secretary of defense said he found a strong sense of energy and self-reliance during a four-nation tour of Africa.

File Photo
Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary, took over as head of the World Bank on June 1.

“The theme that unites these countries is a sense of self-reliance, of people taking charge of their own destiny,” he told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “This was true of presidents and ministers on down to impoverished villages and communities. Everywhere I went, I found people had a real willingness to work hard with an energetic, can-do attitude.”

Wolfowitz, who visited Nigeria, Burkino Faso, Rwanda and South Africa in his first trip as World Bank president, said the bank’s 184 member countries must play a crucial role in the coming years in helping African countries find a way to increase sustainable development.

“The key thing I’d like to do — and there are many others — but at the top of the list is to do as much as I possibly can to support development in Africa. We need to look at how to make ourselves effective in our mission, and our mission is reducing poverty and supporting development, and Africa is a first priority. It’s not the only priority, but there’s clearly a special need for the bank to play an important role in Africa.”

Wolfowitz, who was one of the key advocates of invading Iraq, studiously avoided any discussion of President Bush’s Iraq policy. He declared at the outset, “I’m going to stick to the topic of development in Africa.”

Later, when pressed as to his view on Iraq, and specifically the now-famous Downing Street memo that indicated the British government had doubts about the administration’s plans to invade Iraq and how to manage the post-invasion period, Wolfowitz said, “I’m not here to defend the Bush administration. There will be a time to talk about history.” He added, “I have an obligation to keep the focus on where it should be kept.”

However, when asked by The Hill if any of the Muslim leaders and citizens he spoke to in Africa asked him about the war in Iraq and the American-led effort to implant democracy in a Muslim country, he said, after a long pause, “I don’t think it came up a single time.”

Wolfowitz said he began his trip by attending the London G-8 summit of eight of the world’s richest countries, which discussed the issue of debt cancellation of highly indebted poor countries, the majority of which are in Africa.

“It all came out where the development community and the World Bank would like it to come out,” he said. “The most important compromise was made by the United States, which agreed that most of the money that used to go to pay for servicing the debt would be made up by additional contributions by the developed countries.”

Wolfowitz said that one of the most significant things he found in his trip was on his first stop in Nigeria, the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, where the government “is taking very strong steps to deal with corruption.”

He also cited his meeting with the governor of a small state in Nigeria who said he liked hearing Wolfowitz’s words that the World Bank “needs to be a knowledge bank, but we have to be a learning bank as well.”

Wolfowitz said the official said he was “tired of hearing Ph.D.s from a certain Ivy League school that come here and lecture us and tell us what to do but don’t know what our problems are.” Wolfowitz added, “I think there’s an increased recognition that we’ve got to get away from a patronizing attitude.”

While in South Africa, Wolfowitz payed a courtesy call on Nelson Mandela, which he called “perhaps the most memorable 45 minutes of the trip.” He said Mandela “symbolizes the remarkable change that is taking place in South Africa and what good use the South African people are making of [development aid].”

In Rwanda, scene of one of the worst genocides since World War II 10 years ago, Wolfowitz said he “stopped asking people what happened in 1994 because you’d see them going from bright smiles to clouds on their faces.”

But he said Rwanda has done “a remarkable job of recovering from that and has made a really amazing effort to reconcile and dispense justice in ways that won’t further deepen the wounds of society.”

Wolfowitz related his meeting with a Muslim woman in Burkino Faso who was elected secretary of her village and told him, “There’s no way we can develop here if women aren’t given a chance.”

Wolfowitz, who said he “saw the problems of development up close” while serving as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia during the Reagan administration, said the World Bank, which provided $210.1 billion for 245 projects in developing countries in 2004, has to streamline the grant process to avoid duplication and waste.