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Calling Ouagadougou

Calling Ouagadougou

The World Bank redefined its mission with the mother of all global networks

The first thing you see when you step into the World Bank's headquarters is the phrase "Our dream is a world free of poverty" in big brass letters on the wall opposite the main entrance. Similar messages appear on just about every World Bank document: Nearly half the people in the world live on less than $2 a day, and of these, 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day; poverty leads to 33,000 children dying every day in the developing world. The bank, founded in 1944, provides grants and low-interest loans to governments in the countries facing these problems. In speeches, World Bank officials identify the citizens of these countries as their clients.

Yet when James Wolfensohn became president of the World Bank in 1995, there was a consensus both inside and outside the bank that it wasn't serving its clients as well as it could. One of the most obvious problems was that the bank's headquarters was in Washington DC, while the communities it hoped to aid were thousands of miles away. (On January 3,Wolfensohn informed the World Bank's Board of Executive Directors that he would not seek a third term as head of the institution. His current term concludes on May 31. At the time of writing US President Bush had nominated Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to become the new president. The World Bank board, which must sign off on Washington's choice, had not yet done so.)

Not long after his arrival, Wolfensohn announced a grand plan: Decentralize, leaving project development and oversight to directors based in the countries they represent. It was a simple idea with one giant problem - most of those countries didn't have an infrastructure stable enough to keep the lights on all day, let alone support an international operation. In a speech to the World Bank Board of Governors in October 1996, Wolfensohn proposed a solution. "The revolution in information technology increases the potential value of [the bank's development] efforts by vastly extending their reach," he said. "We need to invest in systems that will enhance our ability to gather information, and experience and share it with our clients." In other words, he needed the mother of all global networks.

The man who would make this happen is Mohamed Muhsin, the World Bank's CIO. Muhsin led the development effort and continues to support a global communications network that is not just aligned with the organization's goal of decentralization but is the foundation on which that strategy was built. In the process, Muhsin and his group have overcome obstacles most CIOs couldn't even dream of, including satellite dish-destroying monkeys.

Though critics knock its implementation and maintenance, the World Bank's network gets high marks overall. "They have done a remarkable job rebuilding the systems and the organizations to enable them to put resources out where they belong," says F Warren McFarlan, a Harvard Business School dean who has studied the project. "They get resources at the point of service; they have the ability to share knowledge."

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