Blinkhorn: McNamara at the World Bank

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(HOST) Commentator Tom Blinkhorn, who worked at The World Bank in Washington, DC when Robert McNamara was president, recalls a very different man from the one who is usually remembered for his role in the Vietnam war.

(BLINKHORN) The McNamara I knew was a passionate, idealistic leader with a good sense of humor. He would remind friends that he officially became Bank president on a noteworthy date – April’s fools day, 1968.

He let it be known immediately that he was determined to transform the institution from a little-known lending agency to a global leader in the fight against poverty.

It was a formidable task, like trying to turn a giant ocean liner on a dime. When he retired after 13 years, in 1981, he had largely achieved his goal, despite many early mistakes and false starts.

At the time, I lived about a block from McNamara in the District of Columbia. Most days I’d see him jogging before 6 a.m. Then he’d walk the three miles or so to the bank headquarters on H street.

He never took the elevator, preferring instead to walk up 12 flights of stairs to his office.

Forever a numbers man with a strong perfectionist streak, he impressed the staff from the beginning with his speed reading skills and astonishing photographic memory.
It was not unusual for him to phone, say, a lowly economist who had just completed months of work on an economic report on India.  "I enjoyed reading your report," McNamara would typically say, "especially that chapter on malnutrition in Tamil Nadu state. However, table 7 in annex 3 contains some caloric estimates that don’t seem to jibe with the conclusions on page 187 of the main report."

A call like that would send a terrifying jolt throughout the Bank – "the boss actually reads these reports and he knows what he’s talking about. We better make sure to double check everything, including annexes."

On one of the many trips that McNamara took to the developing world, he visited Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

He learned for the first time about a terrible disease that was then rampant in the Volta river basin – onchocerciasis or river blindness. It is spread by  repeated bites of a female black fly; the infection eventually attacks the optic nerve, leaving scores of people blind in some of the poorest villages in the world.

Over breakfast one day, a French entomologist, who had been studying the disease for more than 20 years, told McNamara that the disease could be eliminated if the international community would coordinate its efforts and work better with the local African communities. McNamara decided then and there that the World Bank would get into the health business. In typical fashion, he cajoled the Bank board to support an eradication campaign and also won over a slew of skeptical international agencies.

The campaign succeeded and it was one of the most successful interventions by the Bank in Africa.

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