An Australian internationalist we probably don't hear enough from here at home. Depending on your level of scepticism, it may seem contradictory that a man with a personal fortune estimated at around $350 million has been called a spokesperson for the world's poor. But that's how they described James Wolfensohn when he headed up the powerful, but hugely controversial World Bank. Of Jewish descent, a master networker not without his fierce critics, more recently the former Sydney lawyer and merchant banker, served as an envoy to the Middle East. George Negus spoke with him via satellite from New York.
GEORGE NEGUS: James Wolfensohn, you have said that for your 10 years as the head of the World Bank, you were consumed by the question of world poverty, it was almost like your magnificent obsession. But you could say that despite massive global growth, poverty is still the most critical issue of our time. Do you feel you wasted a whole decade?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN, FORMER WORLD BANK PRESIDENT: I don't really at all, but I think to the challenge of poverty is becoming different because in the next 25 years, in India and China alone, you will have 600 million people or more going into the middle class and the problem is that whereas once we looked at China, India, the developing countries as homogenous in a way, being poor, as we look forward there is a tremendous purchasing power in those countries and what we all have to worry about, including the Chinese and the Indians and the richer countries, is still the billion or 1.5 billion people left behind, so this question of poverty is not leaving us, it is just changing and in fact we will now have some partners who can work with us and indeed have a responsibility to their own citizens to try to deal and with these questions.
GEORGE NEGUS: If you have said that unless we look seriously at the problems of poverty and equity, the chances of stability on the planet are pretty remote. That's a very dire warning.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: That's my own personal opinion and it can come in different ways. The poor people of the world tend to be the places that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups can recruit. Secondly, if you have 1 billion or 1.5 billion people today that are in poverty, it is not an uninformed poverty. They know that in other parts of the world it is much richer and much better and it is not surprising that with more mobility that gives the policy of more disturbances in the world.
GEORGE NEGUS: James, where the World Bank is concerned, the jury seems to be perpetually out. Jeffrey Sacks says the Bank really lost its way in recent years, that it has been poorly led and poorly managed with very little accountability or clear objectives. People can't seem to make up their mind whether the World Bank is part of the problem or part of the solution.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I think it's a tremendously important part of the solution. I might add that Jeffrey Sacks, who is a friend that I know very well, has not succeeded dramatically in his own efforts. This is a very particular and difficult problem. You can't wish away poverty overnight. But in India and China, the last 20 years, they have taken 600 million people out of poverty. To say that the efforts there have been unsuccessful is nonsensical. To say that the Bank has not played a role is also nonsense. The question is, what is the extent of that role, and I think what's happened in the last 10 years is that the bank has realised that you can't do it as an outsider. The only way really to influence countries, in terms of poverty, is to get them to change their policies and get them to understand what the issues are. I think that the World Bank is now doing and has been doing for a number of years, a very important job, including looking at the significantly important issue of corruption.
GEORGE NEGUS: Which you tried to tackle, did you succeed?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: You don't succeed on corruption in five minutes, I wish one could. This is a 25- or 50-year attack, this is not a 5-minute attack.
GEORGE NEGUS: James, can we move to the Middle East because there was the last time we heard of you prominently on the world stage. You stayed in that job for 12 months and you said, "I was stupid" I think you said "For not reading the small print, I was never given the mandate to negotiate peace." Was the one of your least fruitful exercises?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I actually think it was not successful in the end, but I don't know that it was without fruit. What I was able to do in that period was to bring it a greater focus to the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians and at one point we had Condy Rice and Solana from the European Union and I announced a 6-point plan which was designed to ameliorate the conditions of the people in Gaza and to build links between Gaza and the West Bank and I did that all with 'Arik' Sharon. The problem became however,that the small print in terms of making peace was all right when I had Arik Sharon next to me, but Arik got sick. At that moment the small print became very relevant and the Americans took over and, very sadly, the view was taken by them, and, I think, some of the Israeli leadership, the new leadership, that what we had designed was either too early or not properly constructed for the benefit of those people. So I left the job after the US, as one of the quartet that appointed me, which was the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, decided that the office should be closed. They asked me to stay on but without staff it was pretty difficult so I got out of it and now Tony Blair is coming back with I must say, with exactly the same mandate.
GEORGE NEGUS: You wish him luck?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I wish him tremendous luck but there is no part of his mandate which is to make peace.
GEORGE NEGUS: So in the ultimate analysis, as a result of that experience, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the Middle East problem? Is it solvable?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: It's solvable and it must be solved and I pray that it will be solved but I would give less than 50-50 chance of a resolution this time around but hopefully it can be a further step forward. He will have Abu Mazen trying to get it, and you will have the Israeli prime minister trying to get it but with the American election coming up, 12 months or so from now, the weight of US influence will diminish and I think this is the last significant opportunity for Condoleezza Rice to impose an American influence so I am slightly less than 50% in terms of my expectations of a happy outcome but I pray that it will be happy and constructive.
GEORGE NEGUS: I guess we all share that feeling. Without introducing politics into politics, James, what you think the outcome of the American election is going to be and does it matter?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I think you know that George Bush's popularity is the around 23% so there is certainly a reaction to his current policies and my guess is that one way or another the American electorate will express its view that these policies are not the ones they want to follow. So, in answer to the issue on policies, I think there will have to be a change if the democratic process works and that will start in Iraq and many other things, including, I hope, the deficit and the weakness of the dollar. I would say at the moment you would probably have to guess that a Democrat has the greater chance of getting in. But presidential politics is a very, very difficult thing to predict.
GEORGE NEGUS: Sounds a bit like Australian politics at the moment, James. Even though John Howard is behind, no one has written him off.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I think that is exactly right and we will see whether Mr Rudd is successful in Australia maybe that will give us a line on what George Bush is going to do.
GEORGE NEGUS: To finish up, you have been described as one of Australia's most powerful expats but don't think many Australians understand the clout that you've had around the globe in the last 10-20 years. Do you still feel like an Australian expat or a citizen of the world?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I feel significantly Australian. I still have a farm in Australia, near Canberra, and now that it is possible to have dual citizenship I hope to apply soon to recover my Australian citizenship. I had to give it up and indeed got Malcolm Fraser's permission when I became president of the World Bank because it is an American appointment and I thought it was silly, but anyway, I did it. So now I have any chance with the new legislation that I can recover my Australian citizenship and I intend to do so.
GEORGE NEGUS: At the ripe young age of 73, has politics ever crossed your mind?
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Never, never, never. Apart from anything else I don't think I would get the vote for anything. But I think that I'm too old and much prefer being a critic at this stage.
GEORGE NEGUS: Great to talk to you again and all the best.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Thank you very much, nice to talk to you.