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Wolfowitz takes World Bank helm
Updated: 2005-06-01 21:04

WASHINGTON, June 1 - Paul Wolfowitz became World Bank president on Wednesday and said his agenda would focus on Africa, tackling corruption and making poor countries feel less sidelined in the bank's decisions.

In his first briefing with reporters since he was confirmed unanimously in March, the former U.S. deputy defense secretary said he did not plan an organizational makeover.

The development bank was in "great shape," he declared, with a mission clearly trained on tackling global poverty.

Wolfowitz takes the reins of the globe's premier lender to impoverished countries despite widespread criticism of his role as the architect of the U.S. war in Iraq.

He quieted his critics by inviting them to meet with him and even handed out his e-mail to staff members still uneasy about their new boss.

Wolfowitz told reporters his immediate priority would be Africa, while not forgetting the development needs in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

"Africa has a dependence and need for the bank that stands out among all the many people who need what this bank has to offer" said Wolfowitz, acknowledging he still had lots to learn.

He said the bank's role in Africa was especially important given that a dozen or so countries were growing at unprecedented rates of 5 percent annually.

Adding he was "cautiously hopeful," Wolfowitz said, "There is a long, long way to go but I would find nothing more satisfying than, at the end of my tenure at this institution, to feel that we have played a part in what hopefully could be a period when Africa went from a continent of despair, to a continent of hope."

He said he wanted to ensure that developing countries that had complained to him about feeling alienated were brought into the decision-making of the bank.

Without saying outright he would give them a bigger role through management changes, Wolfowitz said, "I would like to work very hard at changing that feeling so that at the very least their views are brought in a serious way."


He said he would carry on with the campaign of departing bank President James Wolfensohn to clean up corruption in World Bank projects and push to reduce corruption in borrowing countries.

Such messages should bode well in the U.S. Congress where lawmakers led by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are fighting to stamp out corruption in multilateral development bank projects.

Lugar has presented legislation that would encourage independent auditing and transparency and would set up a trust fund to help poor countries combat corruption on their own.

The former No. 2 Pentagon official said the bank also had a role in rebuilding conflict-ridden countries, including in Iraq.

Wolfowitz drew parallels between Iraq and African countries like Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the bank has projects despite political instability.

He said he had surprisingly encountered very little skepticism about his ability to distance himself from the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

"You deal with it by being objective and credible," he said of the critics, adding, "If anything I have encountered 'Geez, maybe you can get us some useful access to the White House and to Congress."'

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