Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

World Bank should relocate

By Lex Rieffel (China Daily) Updated: 2012-02-24 08:11

Of the three pillars of the global economic architecture created after World War II, the World Trade Organization is based in Switzerland, while the other two, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are headquartered in Washington D.C. The time has come to move at least one of the two out of the United States.

Moving the World Bank makes more sense than moving the IMF. The World Bank has no mandate to carry out operations in the United States. By contrast, the most important function of the IMF - which few people understand - is to assess the economic policies of countries that play the largest roles in international monetary and financial systems. As long as the US has the world's biggest economy and the deepest financial markets, it makes sense for the IMF to be based in Washington.

However, the World Bank's operations are overwhelmingly conducted in developing countries. A solid case can be made for moving the World Bank. There are compelling reasons for doing so:

The world is no longer US-centric. Broad international support for the World Bank (as well as the IMF) will depend on changing the widespread belief that it is an instrument of US policy. Moving the World Bank out of the US would be a powerful symbolic step toward a global governance system that has broader legitimacy.

Second, the World Bank and IMF are both located in Washington - in fact, they are right across the street from each other - has contributed to the almost universal perception that there is no significant difference between them. Their missions however are fundamentally different. Separation could make each institution more effective.

Finally, a move out of Washington would not represent any hardship on the World Bank's staff. Until recently, Washington has offered lifestyle advantages (such as proximity to top educational institutions) that few other countries could match for attracting a top-quality international staff. However, there are dozens of cities outside the US that offer comparable perks.

The biggest obstacle to move the World Bank out of Washington is the veto power of the US. While extremists exist in both political parties who for different reasons would like to see the World Bank closed down, Republican and Democratic leaders in US Congress can be counted on to oppose the idea of moving it.

Many supporters fear that Congress will cut World Bank funding sharply if it leaves Washington. While such a reaction would be contrary to long-term US interests, it is easy to imagine this result given the country's current political climate. However, the US has constrained funding increases for the Bank for more than a decade already. It is entirely possible for Europe and countries like China and Brazil to offset any reductions in US funding.

True, a move out of Washington could lead to a loss of control over operations of the World Bank by the US. True, but one has to recognize that a substantial reduction in US influence is inevitable in the years ahead, regardless of where the Bank is headquartered. Emerging-market countries will gain influence as their share of global economic output continues to grow.

What are the costs of moving the World Bank? They could be substantial. Some of the biggest costs - associated with similar moves in the past (such as the construction of new buildings) - have been underwritten by the host country as it anticipates the economic benefits from gaining an employer of thousands of people over many years.

That leaves one question - where to relocate? To Africa, Asia or Latin America? Putting the World Bank headquarters in either one of these regions might not sit well with the others. Options include moving the World Bank to Istanbul, Turkey - the most obvious bridge between the West and the East. Or it could be Johor on the Southern tip of Malaysia, a bridge away from Singapore, a stellar sample of development success.

Others would, somewhat ironically, point to Europe largely because the European time zones have proven to be the best locations for organizations that operate globally. Furthermore on the donor side, support for the World Bank is broad and deep in Europe.

But that battle can be duked out after the principal decision to relocate has been made.

What matters above all is that a US initiative to consider moving the World Bank out of Washington is the kind of knock-your-socks-off gesture required to convince the world that the US is looking beyond its short-term self-interests and sees the long-term benefits of making our global institutions look and feel more global.

The author is a former US Treasury official and contributor to

(China Daily 02/24/2012 page9)

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