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Put James Wolfensohn Back to Work

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One of the things that few people know about James Wolfensohn is that when he served as Special Emissary of the Quartet in Palestine/Israel matters, Wolfensohn put his own private money on the table to help fund infrastructure and to help Palestinian businesses ship strawberries to Europe. I was in Israel in December 2005 and met an impressive retired Israeli general who was working hard to try and implement aspects of the framework agreement that Condi Rice had then hammered out with Israelis and Palestinians.

The general -- who was clearly sympathetic to the need to support the Palestinians and to end the idiotic interventions in and disruptions of Palestinian life and society -- nonetheless said that Palestine's "infrastructure had been wiped out; there was nothing there to work with." He blamed his own nation, Israel, for doing this -- and Wolfensohn and others involved at that time were feverishly working on ways to reestablish infrastructure of competent personnel in government, in the private sector, in any part of Palestinian civil society. And thus, Wolfensohn used some of his own money to try and do what he could to just get a competent firm and infrastructure established to stop Palestinian strawberries from rotting and get them on to tables in Europe.

Wolfensohn is a person who doesn't need to work and doesn't need to invest in strawberry transport. He doesn't need to write op-eds about global economic development. He can ignore all of us.

But he's one of these "big personalities" who wants to make a mark on the world and wants to improve things. In my mind, George Soros is one of these big personalities who wants to do important and admirable things in the world; so, too, are others across the political divide -- like Mark Malloch Brown, Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Sachs, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Zoellick, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and I could go on.

Wolfensohn has just published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune in which he describes what he sees as a four speed world. From the article:

We are at a pivotal moment: World economic growth is posting a 30-year high, yet the consensus on globalization is splintering. With $51 trillion in annual global income, we have the resources to eradicate extreme poverty and promote prosperity, but the G-8 and the international financial institutions it controls are struggling to be effective. Unless our institutions keep pace with changing economics, the chasm will continue to grow between rich and poor.

This is because the world has moved beyond the old divides of North-South and East-West. While being more interconnected, it is now rapidly breaking into four tiers of varying levels of prosperity and hope. I call this the Four Speed World.

The first tier are the rich countries, including the United States and Europe, which for the last 50 years have maintained 80 percent share of global income while accounting for only 20 percent of the world's population. They will continue to enjoy improvements in living standards, but their dominance is being contested by emerging economies.

These emerging economies, comprising a second tier of about 30 poor and middle income nations, have learned how to leverage the global economy. With sustained growth at 7 percent or more per year, countries like India and China will soon become global leaders.

A third tier -- a much larger number of economies, perhaps 50 in all -- have experienced growth spurts, but also periods of decline or stagnation, especially once they hit middle income country status.

Spanning from Latin America to the Middle East, these economies have been forgotten by the G-8 leaders. They are neither poor enough to warrant special aid, nor sufficiently large and fast-growing to be major players in global growth. Yet more than a fifth of the people in the world live in these countries.

A fourth tier, a billion people, live in the poorest countries, which continue to stagnate or decline. These countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, gain little from globalization but are among the most vulnerable to its adverse effects, such as climate change and higher natural resource prices. The human tragedy engulfing this group is a huge concern and political challenge to the rest of us.

In the next 50 years, 3 billion people will be added to the 6 billion already on the planet. Barely 50 million will be added to the rich world; most will increase the second, third and fourth tiers.

Wolfensohn is reminding everyone that the world is interconnected, whether the rich nations want to fully acknowledge that or not. Bob Zoellick is in Ghana today and Ethiopia tomorrow because Africa matters to the U.S. and Europe -- and we must get serious about remedying a global divide between the hyper-wealthy nations and the hyper poor.

He's on target. The question is why isn't Wolfensohn -- who has put his own money behind the Palestinians on strawberries, has donated a load of money to try and move progressive thinking forward on global economic development, and is attempting to constructively guide our appreciation for the important role of the World Bank (also in the article) -- not being given a "major problem portfolio" to solve?

Europe, the U.S., Japan -- the United Nations -- should not let people like Wolfensohn sit too long without big challenges because big personalities and cosmic thinkers of his sort who don't really believe in gravity and predetermined fate are the ones who actually can change the path of the railroad track we are on.

For those interested in some of the work Wolfensohn and others are generating, check out the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note