Lawmaker Irked By World Bank's Tight Fists

With its ample resources and a professional staff numbering 10,000 people, the World Bank (search) seems like an ideal instrument for getting Iraq (search) back on its feet.

Rep. Mark Kirk (search) certainly agrees with that view but says bank support for Iraq is trifling: $3.6 million in delivered postwar assistance, according to his figures.

World Bank, State Department and independent experts disagree with much of Kirk's thesis. But they can't ignore him because he is a member of the House committee responsible for appropriating foreign aid, including U.S. support for World Bank operations.

Kirk says the bank, a U.N. institution, came through handsomely for Germany and Japan with reconstruction projects after World War II (search) — but is not doing the same for Iraq now.

"Iraq should be the No. 1 mission for the World Bank," says Kirk, R-Ill. He says school textbooks promised by the bank under a $40 million program have yet to materialize. He contrasts that with the prompt textbook deliveries of the U.S. Agency for International Development (search).

Nonsense, says Sebastian Mallaby, author of a new book, "The World's Banker," an in-depth account of the bank and its mercurial Australian president, James Wolfensohn (search).

The bank's value, says Mallaby, is not in its ability to deliver books but in fixing school systems.

"Attacking the bank for being slower than USAID's text book delivery is like complaining that surgery takes longer than popping two aspirin," Mallaby says.

Of the 184 countries that run the bank, the United States is by far the most influential. The bank's mission is to fight poverty. It is providing $20.1 billion for 245 projects in poor countries worldwide this year.

The bank says it isn't shortchanging Iraq and is committed to helping its reconstruction. Responding to Kirk's charges that the bank has no personnel in Iraq and bars volunteers from working there, a spokesman noted that a bank staffer in Iraq was killed by insurgents in August 2003 and several others were seriously wounded. International aid agencies trying to operate in Iraq remain subject to armed attacks.

The bank is trying to overcome the absence of personnel in Iraq by deploying experts in neighboring Jordan. Communications with Iraqi officials in Baghdad are carried out through teleconferences.

Kirk says the recent U.S. decision to redirect $1.8 billion in U.S. aid to Iraq toward security at the expense of reconstruction projects makes a more assertive World Bank role in Iraq more imperative.

State Department officials are confident that the bank will become increasingly active now that Iraqi political authority has been restored. For legal reasons, the bank role in Iraq was sharply restricted beforehand.

The bank's ties with Iraq also should pick up once its international credit is restored, a step wealthy countries are expected to take at a meeting before the year's end. Iraq is now eligible for low-interest World Bank loans but has not applied for any.

Despite the constraints, the bank has trained more than 600 Iraqi civil servants in key ministries, the spokesman said. In addition, a $60 million school rehabilitation project is in the works as well as a $55 million private sector development project.

The bank also manages a trust fund into which donor countries have contributed more than $350 million.

While disputing Kirk on several points, Mallaby agrees that the bank help for Iraq might have been deliberately unhurried because of the influence of some European "shareholders" in the bank which have opposed U.S. policy toward Iraq all along.

"The United States was giving the World Bank a green light while several European governments were giving it a red one. That's why the bank was slow," Mallaby says.