A World Bank Marketplace of Ideas

A World Bank Marketplace of Ideas

 

By John Burgess

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday , February 15, 2000

 

The two-day gathering in the atrium of the World Bank headquarters last week was a lot like a venture-capital fair, with more

than 300 eager entrepreneurs coming together to vie for that crucial first funding for Big Ideas.

 

But what unusual ideas these were: build low-cost wheelchairs in Gaza, combat female genital mutilation in Africa, put a

Cambodian library on the Internet, turn former boy soldiers of African civil wars into seed dealers.

 

This "Development Marketplace," along with a program announced in Tokyo over the weekend to fund Internet start-up

companies in developing countries, are new evidence of change at the World Bank. It is slowly diversifying beyond its roots as

distant bankroller of mega-projects such as steel mills and hydroelectric dams.

 

The sum up for grabs at the marketplace--$5 million--is a pittance compared with the $20 billion that the bank lends each year. But the bank's officials, and some of its critics, praised the marketplace as a significant step in the direction of creative thinking. It also broke new ground in channeling money directly to community groups, rather than taking the traditional route through governments.

 

The fair was "extremely innovative and it fosters competition around the concept of what is development," said Lisa Jordan,

executive director of the Bank Information Center. Her Washington group monitors World Bank activities and frequently faults

them as unresponsive or harmful to borrowing countries; nonetheless, she was invited as a juror.

 

Still, she wonders, "Why is the bank not doing these things in general?"

 

James Wolfensohn, the former Wall Street financier who heads the bank, said the fair was a chance to inject some

private-sector vitality into the institution. The goal is to ensure "that people didn't feel their ideas were being battened down by

bureaucratic superstructure," he said, "so we said to people, 'If you've got ideas, why don't you show them to us?' "

 

The bank's stated mission is to foster development through long-term lending. The 44 project winners from the marketplace

were awarded bank grants that don't have to be paid back--ranging from $27,350 to $380,000. The hope is that many will

eventually prove workable on a larger scale. If they do, they could become the target of big-scale lending.

 

In recent years, the bank has backed off from emphasis on building things; it now commonly lends for such purposes as

teaching new farming methods. Still, change comes slowly, and many officials see the marketplace approach as leading into new and long-taboo areas.

 

Some of the winning projects, picked by a "jury" of bank employees and outsiders and not carrying the official stamp of the

bank's board, directly address sensitive subjects of types the bank has long avoided, such as the plan to combat female genital

mutilation, a common cultural practice in parts of Africa.

 

Some of the younger bank employees who took part in the fair chafe over old-line bank policies that emphasize big-ticket

lending. In the jury room the selection of the mutilation project as a winner was greeted with applause, Jordan said.

 

During the two-day marketplace, many members of the multinational staff teamed up with groups from their countries of origin.

Sophal Ear, a young Cambodian American at the bank, helped a project seeking to fund Internet access at Cambodia's

national library, while Lina Annab, an International Monetary Fund official who grew up in Jordan, was working with a project

that wanted to teach people in Gaza and the West Bank to build low-cost wheelchairs.

 

"The only drawback is there is so little time to interest the jury members," said Gabriel Rugalema, manning a booth for a project to put "youth ex-combatants"--development jargon for former boy soldiers--in Liberia and Sierra Leone to work peddling seeds to farmers who are replanting after civil war. "If you stumble once, you don't get another chance."

 

The Cambodia, Gaza and Sierra Leone projects didn't win bank funding or take any of 20 other prizes awarded.

 

Another step in a shift in bank policy--trying to harness the Internet as a weapon against world poverty--was announced half a

world away over the weekend. The International Finance Corp. (IFC), a World Bank affiliate that invests in private-sector

projects, said it would put a total of $82.5 million into a $520 million venture-capital pool whose other backer is the Japanese

technology conglomerate Softbank.

 

Bank officials say they want to work globally to close the "digital divide" that keeps poor people from gaining access to the

increasingly important online world. The idea is to offer venture capital and technical aid to "incubate" start-up companies in

developing countries; plans call for the first investment to be announced in May.

 

Wolfensohn uses this example of the type of impact he's looking for with the IFC project: An entrepreneur in Ethiopia, he says,

uses the World Wide Web to contact Ethiopian taxi drivers in the United States and sell them goats, which are delivered to

their relatives in Ethiopia. Ownership of goats is a traditional form of saving there; the drivers are in effect transferring earnings

home through contacts on the Web.

 

Bank officials acknowledge that there are big challenges in creating Internet access for people who may earn only a few

hundred dollars a year and who lack electric power.

 

But they foresee a day in which community Internet centers might allow farmers to get the latest on seed technology or check

prices and sales outlets abroad. Rather than being captive to traditional middlemen, the farmers could tap directly into global

marketplaces and spur the prosperity of their home communities.

 

"It will change the rules of the game," predicted Mohsen Khalil, the IFC's director of telecommunications and informatics, who

said the Internet can "realize the potential of human capital across the world, regardless of its origin."

 

Winning Funding

 

Here are some of the winners of the World Bank's Development Marketplace Innovation Competition:

 

Project

 

Winner

 

Amount

 

Roundabout Outdoor HIV/AIDS Initiative

 

(merry-go-round type "roundabouts" on playgrounds are altered to use children's energy to pump water; AIDS awareness

messages to be displayed on the roundabout)

 

Trevor Field, South Africa

 

$165,000

 

Ending female genital cutting

 

(teaching people who perform operations to develop small-business skills as an alternative to cutting)

 

Tshiya Su, Washington, D.C.

 

$150,000

 

Low-cost household water disinfection for developing nations

 

Lloyd Connelly, Berkeley, Calif.

 

$100,500

 

Niger delta oil spill response

 

Uzo Egbuche, Nigeria

 

$99,750

 

African digital library

 

(to be accessed via the Web for academic or business use)

 

Paul G. West, South Africa

 

$90,000

 

Pilot training center for disadvantaged youth

 

Kali Azzi, Jerusalem

 

$88,000

 

Social integration of disabled children

 

Ion Balteanu, Moldova

 

$87,611

 

SOURCE: World Bank

 

World Bank

 

What it is: An international development organization owned by more than 180 member countries.

 

Organization: It consists of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Development

Association, the International Finance Corp., the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, and the International Center for

Settlement of Investment Disputes.

 

Purpose: To lend money to the governments of its poorer members, often called "developing" countries, and to countries whose economies are in transition.

 

Headquarters: 1818 H St. NW

 

Origins: Established in 1944 as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; first began operations in 1946 with

38 members.

 

President: James D. Wolfensohn

 

Employees: More than 9,000 people from about 160 nations

 

Shareholders: The World Bank is like a giant cooperative with its members as shareholders. The United States is the largest

single shareholder, followed by Japan, Germany, Britain and France.

 

Lending: In an average year, the World Bank lends about $20 billion to the governments of about 80 developing countries to

support more than 225 projects.

 

Web address: www.worldbank.org

 

SOURCE: World Bank