The Banker and the Archbishop: A Tribute to James D. Wolfensohn

By: Katherine Marshall

December 11, 2020

Among his many qualities, Jim Wolfensohn was fearless. He took on unexpected and contentious topics during his decade-long tenure as president of the World Bank, one of them his venture into the ferociously complex world of faith and religion. He did so without qualms or hesitation.

This began in 1998—before 9/11 and before world leaders like Madeleine Albright and António Guterres highlighted the foolishness of ignoring a topic that motivates and inspires most of the world’s people, notably those in the world’s poorest countries. Jim, together with George Carey, then the archbishop of Canterbury, launched a new process: the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD). Working with several like-inclined leaders—including the Aga Khan, Prince Hassan of Jordan, Cardinal Etchegaray, Jeffrey Solomon, and Michel Camdessus—he launched a dialogue process and drafted me to support it. WFDD was just that: worldwide, focusing on the remarkable transnational, local, and historic roles of the world’s great religious leaders and traditions; including all faiths (and with faith that it could be done!); focused on development impact, especially its human aspects; and centered on new kinds of dialogue, genuine openness to exchange and transformation, with groups and people outside the World Bank’s normal orbits.

Launching the faith dialogue created something of a storm at the time (1998 to 2001), both among the World Bank’s executive directors and bank managers. Objections raised touched on an intertwined complex of issues that went to the guts of the bank’s mission and to questions about the power relationships it has always navigated. Jim Wolfensohn was convinced that opening what many saw as a Pandora’s box could provide real insights and improve the reach and quality of the bank’s work. So he, and we, persisted—and he has been proved right. 

During the period of the tempest around the initiative he launched with world religious leaders, Jim Wolfensohn reframed the “faith” agenda as essentially about values and ethics, and certainly not about spreading religious faith. The perspectives of religious institutions brought a different view of development, one that often came from the margins of societies and that included prophetic visions. Faith actors voiced opinions that had lurked below the surface but were often unspoken. The dialogue that was opened had significant new dimensions. It helped to pry open uncomfortable issues, for example around long-standing perceptions of the bank’s blinkers and arrogance. Still more vital, it brought to the surface myriad questions and learning about the ends of development, and about different roles and approaches that development involves. In many senses, the discussions foreshadowed the debates in which we are so immersed today: about polarization, diversity, and the ethical conundrums involved.

Many other institutions have since caught up with the bank, which is seen as an improbable pioneer on the topic of religious engagement. WFDD has had its ups and downs, and there are still skeptics. It is indeed complicated. But a sensible consensus to which the World Bank has contributed in practical ways is that religious literacy and engagement should be seen as a fundamental part of the development agenda. It is about inclusion of different perspectives and actors—and that demands that we force ourselves to see different perspectives and to learn from them.

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