04/21/2012 08:18 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2012

International Stolen Asset Recovery As a Development Issue -- A World Bank President's Legacy?

This weekend Robert B. Zoellick, the 11th president of the World Bank Group, will preside over his last Spring Meetings. And while many of the private discussions at the international forum of ministers and development officials will likely focus on Jim Yong Kim, the Dartmouth College president recently selected to serve as the next World Bank president, it is worth taking a moment to consider the legacy that Mr. Zoellick will leave behind.

In many ways, Zoellick spent the last five years juggling a World Bank "turnaround," in both reputation and effectiveness, all while managing one global crisis after another. He entered an institution that was tarnished, inside and out. Scandal had dented not just the Bank's external reputation, but in some ways, also its internal core -- the impressive collection of international technocrats and development experts who drive the Bank Group's operations in every corner of the world, but whose good work was sadly overshadowed, for a time, by an eager media, sometimes more interested in sensational headlines than the development matrixes and economic models that are central to helping create "a world free of poverty."

Mr. Zoellick lost little time when he started at the Bank Group. Perhaps those most aware of the new presidential pace were his vice presidents and senior staff. Early morning meetings were not the exception -- but the rule. Blackberries buzzed at every hour of the day, as an ambitious new president pressed issue after issue, leaving many to wonder when the Illinois native found time to sleep. But from the financial crisis, to the food crisis, to the debt crisis, there was little time for down time for anyone -- least of all, to the man at the helm and his hardworking team.

And while future commentaries will chronicle Zoellick's acts and deeds, it is worth pausing, this weekend, as he completes his last major world forum as president, to recall the initiative he launched at his first major world forum.

The forum five years ago was the United Nations General Assembly -- and it was there that Zoellick formally linked international stolen asset recovery with the development agenda.

At a joint launch with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the new Bank Group president (then, just two months in the job), the world was introduced to the first Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative.

Declaring that "there should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor," Zoellick, in effect, added international enablers to all those developing countries that sought to recover assets from past dictators and grand corruption cases. Indeed, in many ways he foreshadowed current events in the post-"Arab Spring" governments when he opined that, "[h]elping developing countries recover the stolen money will be key to fund social programs and put corrupt leaders on notice that they will not escape the law."

The 2007 joint initiative by the World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (that a development bank and a U.N. crime-fighting agency should be partners is, itself, remarkable), has since emerged as an important global player in the anti-corruption and asset recovery movement.

And by pulling the fight against grand corruption and asset recovery into the development agenda, Zoellick and his team -- including then-World Bank Managing Director (now Nigerian Finance Minister) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala -- have helped create an initiative that is operational by design, so that even its reports are to be forward-looking. For example, StAR's recent Barriers to Asset Recovery report -- referred to as a "powerful tool to help policy makers design a comprehensive strategy for stolen asset recovery and implement the necessary reforms," by StAR Coordinator Jean Pesme -- is constantly looking to help pave the way for important tangible results. And if there is another possible legacy of the Zoellick presidency, it is his relentless drive to produce results.

Thankfully, despite the immense time required to bring asset recovery cases to conclusion, there are already success stories to be shared.

Following the launch of the StAR Initiative, Swiss and Haitian officials worked, in conjunction with World Bank and U.N. officials, to help secure an order to return millions of dollars of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier assets back to Haiti -- the first time ever the international community has worked together to help recover stolen assets from a past dictator.

And while much of StAR's operational work is "behind the scenes," the world recently saw another asset recovery success. Just one year after Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from power, the Tunisian government recovered two executive jets linked to the Ben Ali family, worth an estimated $30 million.

Of course, the millions of dollars of assets that have been the focus of StAR's activities are but a drop in the bucket when compared to the $20 to 40 billion the World Bank estimates is lost to corruption, each year, in developing countries. But then again, asset recovery is not just about the money; it is also about the demonstration effect and the follow-on discussion that promotes change.

And thanks to the out-going World Bank president and his international collaborators, the effort to end the impunity that is so often associated with economic crime and grand corruption is now part of the development discussion, whether it be at the Bank, the U.N., the G-20 or elsewhere. But more importantly for progress, it is now part of the global discussion. From Tunisia to Libya, and elsewhere, people are calling for the return of stolen assets from their past dictators. And thanks to the leadership of a few visionaries, there is now an international development mechanism to help.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, previously served as a White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and as the first head of operations of the World Bank's StAR Secretariat. He worked on the Srebrenica genocide and Slobodan Milosevic prosecution teams and the "Baby Doc" Duvalier/Haiti and Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery teams, and now leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group PLLC.