The World Bank, the Catholic Church, and the Global Future of Development

By: Thomas Banchoff

March 13, 2015

The World Bank and the Catholic Church are the two most influential anti-poverty institutions in the world. One works primarily with governments and the international community; the other through a global network encompassing more than a billion adherents.

Contact between the two institutions has been sporadic. The Bank’s focus is projects with governments to address economic development, while the Church works mainly through social channels. Recently, however, the leaders of both institutions have articulated convergent approaches to human development that link economics with health, education, and the environment. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim put it after his meeting with Pope Francis in October 2013, “We share a vision of a world with greater compassion for all people in need.”

This spring Georgetown’s new Global Futures Initiative is inviting faculty and students to explore that common vision and how to realize it in practice. A series of lectures by President Kim and his colleague Chief Economist Kaushik Basu are catalyzing conversations on campus and on the web, including one with 20 participants from Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities around the world.

In that conversation thus far, bloggers from Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, India, South Korea, Japan, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Rwanda, and the United States have highlighted two areas of overlap and one difference of emphasis in emergent approaches to development within the Bank and within the Church.

Mental Models. Kim’s first lecture, on the Ebola crisis, highlighted the Bank’s recent work on mental models—the often unconscious ideas and values that frame problems and can impede the search for creative solutions. What Francis calls the “globalization of indifference” exemplifies a destructive mental modelthe widespread assumption that economic forces are beyond our control and that fundamental questions of justice should not frame our policy thinking.

Social Inequality. In his first lecture, on global economic trends, Kaushik Basu discussed the Bank’s adoption of “shared prosperity” as a priority goal. The emphasis not just on extreme poverty but also on inequality parallels developments in Catholic social thought in recent years. As inequality has sharpened—the wealth of the richest global 1 percent is likely to soon surpass that of the other 99 percent—Francis has addressed it as “the root of social evil” and a threat to the global common good.

Accompaniment. A cross-cutting current within the blogs—the importance of personal engagement with the poor in a spirit of mutual respect—points to a difference of emphasis between the Bank and the Church. As an intergovernmental institution with a secular ethos, the Bank cannot approach human dignity as grounded in transcendence or in a Gospel command of love. Francis’ radical call to accompany the poor in their struggle makes development a personal, as well as a political, imperative.

Ultimately the World Bank, like the Catholic Church and other faith communities, acknowledges the importance of personal engagement in advancing social and political goals. Any appeal to rid the world of poverty involves a call to individual conscience. As Kim reminded the Georgetown students at the close of his lecture, “You are the first generation in the history of the world that can end extreme poverty in your lifetimes.”    

Jim Kim’s
next lecture in the Global Future of Development series, on March 18, will address climate change. To follow the conversation, visit the Georgetown Global Futures website and follow the dialogues on global development and Catholic social thought.

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