“If you have wealth, you have to share it,” was the slogan of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, a hardened, selfish, highly confident and inveterate network worker, but fundamentally a good and resourceful man. Wolfensohn, who has died at 86, made a lot of money and gave a lot of gifts.
The zenith of his career was his two-term presidency of the World Bank, between 1995 and 2005, where his enthusiasm and passion for poverty alleviation left an indelible mark. Unafraid to face the reality that much of the World Bank’s loans were in anonymous bank accounts abroad held by recipients, he established an anti-corruption task force, unthinkable before his arrival for fear of legitimizing the recipients. critics of the bank while potentially slandering some innocents. borrowers.
Yet he went ahead, reconfiguring the bank’s lending program to recognize another reality: Too many less developed countries were too poor to repay what they had been loaned, and their loans had to be forgiven. Foreshadowing today’s concerns, he expanded the bank’s lending programs from the sole support of the hard infrastructure of dams, power generation and ports, to the social infrastructure of education, particularly for women.
To cement the new emphasis, it launched the Comprehensive Development Framework to provide recipient countries with rounded metrics to assess their economic and social progress. This approach took into account educational and health standards as well as growth in per capita income.
His presidency of the bank was a key moment. Education, public health and the right to vote for women were and are as essential to economic development as energy, railways and roads.
Wolfensohn was always on the move: when in Washington he “walked the floor” of bank offices joking and joking, or just as likely on a plane, his beloved cello often on the seat next to him, touring World Bank clients , visited 120 countries in total, where he would infallibly call things by name, however shameful the comment was. “What is the difference between God and James Wolfensohn?” made a joke in Washington. “God is everywhere, so is Wolfensohn, but never here!”
He said his passion for fighting inequality, alleviating poverty and giving away money as a philanthropist had its roots in his modest upbringing in a two-bedroom apartment in a Sydney suburb, which may have also given him his ambition to drive for life.
His parents, Hyman Wolfensohn and Dora Weinbaum, had emigrated to Australia in 1928 after his father’s career in banking at Rothschild failed, never to take off again, although he retained his affection for the Rothschilds. She was smart and hyper-ambitious – at school she sang the roles of young women in Gilbert and Sullivan operas to get noticed and, as a natural sportsman, represented Australia at the 1956 Olympics as a valued member of the fencing team.
I’d say witnessing his Jewish parents, despite their relative poverty, welcomed as refugees from Nazi Germany ignited him with a lifelong sympathy for the dispossessed, and being an Olympian gave him the inner confidence to match their ambition. It really was good enough to climb the heights.
After the University of Sydney, he was convinced to enter Harvard Business School, recognizing that a Harvard MBA would be a passport to the city of London that a Sydney law degree alone would not deliver. So it turned out. After a couple of failed attempts, he landed a job at the boutique and fast-growing commercial bank Darling and Co.
Harvard was also where he met Elaine Botwinick. They married in 1961 and had three children.
Darling and Co turned out to be a stepping stone to Schroders, where his affability and cold gaze for what was and was not good business earned him a growing list of clients. In 1970, he was destined for higher things if he could capitalize on the opportunity to expand Schroders’ operations in New York, where he was spectacularly successful, thanks to a meeting book and a love of entertainment, which had already become a legend. .
But Schroders in 1976 was not prepared to offer the managing director of his New York operations the highest position in the bank, preferring the British aristocrat Lord Airlie to Wolfensohn.
Reading the runes, he left to join Salomon Brothers, rising to the top, confirmation of their meteoric impact on Wall Street investment banking. It was the rescheduling of Chrysler’s debts in 1979 that saved the auto company from bankruptcy, in particular by persuading Japanese banks to continue lending, that caught the attention of Wall Street titans and the Democratic Party establishment. .
This was a man who could marry high finance, good values, and high politics, and put alchemy on a constructive purpose. He was asked to become president of the World Bank, but the Republicans won the presidency and, although he took American citizenship to secure his chances (only Americans are nominated for the presidency of the World Bank), the opportunity was lost.
He once again reinvented himself, but as the founder of his own investment firm, Wolfensohn Inc. In the next 14 years, he amassed his fortune and doubled as a top New York and Washington philanthropist. He presided over Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts in Washington.
In a typical combination of self-aggrandizement, genuine affection for music, and generosity towards Jacqueline de Pré, who was struggling with multiple sclerosis, who wanted a renewed purpose in her life, he took lessons from her on the cello. They were released on the condition that he perform publicly, which he did when he turned 50, 60 and 70 years old.
Bill Clinton’s presidency – they were inevitably friends – was to give him the opportunity he longed for at the World Bank, and in 1995 he assumed the presidency. Awarded honors by Britain, the United States, Germany and his native Australia, he lived through a happy semi-retirement of 2005 that combined philanthropy and consulting, resigning from the role of peace envoy to the Middle East after 11 months because, he said, he did not. there was nothing he could usefully do.
Elaine died in August. He is survived by a son and two daughters.
• James David Wolfensohn, banker, born December 1, 1933; died on November 25, 2020
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