How the World Bank Punches Poor People in the Face

The economist and former World Bank analyst explains how disastrous his former employer's policies have been for the developing world, amounting to "a punch in the face" for the poor.
  • Transcript


Raj Patel: If you don’t know anything about the World Bank, I have a small contribution to the world of pedagogy and it relies on a metaphor that comes from the Terry Gilliam film, “Time Bandits.”  Now, if you don’t know about “Time Bandits,” “Time Bandits” is a film about disgruntled former employees of God.  Now the story is that God built the world in six days, so it was a rush job and God couldn’t do it by himself, he had help.  But he treats his labor very badly, and so they run off with a map of the universe with its imperfections and they use the holes in the universe to rob people.  So, in one scene, they rob Napoleon and they jump through a hole in time with all of Napoleon’s stuff and they end up in Sherwood Forest where they are met by Robin Hood, who is played by John Cleese as a sort of upper class twit.  He’s wearing a sort of bright green hat and he calls himself “Hood.”  And Hood’s very excited by all of Napoleon’s stuff and he says, “This is tremendous.  Thank you very much indeed.  The poor will love this.  Have you met the poor?  They’re charming people, of course they don’t have two pennies to rub together but that‘s because they’re poor.”  And there’s a scene where Napoleon’s stuff is given away to the poor.  And Hood works the line and he’s gilded, and he says, “How long have you been poor?  Jolly good.  Congratulations.  Here, rubies for you.”  And right next to him is this big hulking bloke who takes whatever Hood has given and punches the poor person in the face. 

So, that’s kind of how the World Bank works.  It’s in the business of making these large loans, but it is also a bank so it takes those loans back.  And the punch in the face comes from the policies that this organization imposes on developing countries.  Policies that have, for example in agriculture, have led to a decimation in agriculture in say, Africa.  It’s not me making this assessment; in fact, the World Bank a couple of years admitted that its policies have been a disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

I say all of this because there is this sort of need within the World Bank to have reassurance that what it’s doing is right.  A moment of saying, “Well, some of our best friends are poor people, have you met the poor?  We had lunch with them yesterday; they love us.”  And that’s what I ended up doing.  My job was to be part of a research team looking at these research reports on poverty.  And the reports that we wrote – the voices of the poor “Can Anyone Hear Us?” was basically a long way for the World Bank to say, “Well have you me – we had lunch with the poor, they love us.”  And in fact, at the end of this book was a long description about how the consultants drove up in their Jeep to the village and spontaneously the women bust out in song and they were singing, “Here are the World Bank.  Here are the World Bank.  They are here to develop us.  We hope they won’t forget us.”  And the last line of the book is, “Will we?” 

And there’s this thing about the way the World Bank works.  I mean it needs this kind of self-justification.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like the World Bank is filled with evil-doers.  These sort of Blofeldian villains who are sitting in leathers chairs stroking cats thinking, “How are we going to fuck the third world today?”  It’s not like that.  It’s sort of very well meaning people, but they're executing policies that are tremendously bad for developing countries.