Robert S. McNamara, the distinguished establishmentarian who leads the World Bank, may not strike you as one of the world's leading revolutionaies, but he qualifies for such an entitlement after his speech at the bank's annual meeting earlier this week.
In their thinking about development, he and a good part of what you could call his class have not abandoned their emphasis on working through established channels of governments, and the international institutions sponsored by those governments, to encourage more effective policies by poor countries and more enlightened policies by rich ones.
But in his lates pronouncement McNamara has added a very different element: the suggestion that the existing political order is in itself an obstacle to development and that it must somehow - he doesn't say how - be changed.
A strong and, some would say, unrealistic apolitical quality has long marked McNamara's approach to development, the product perhaps of his technocratic bent and of the reserve forced on all international institutions. This is the spirit in which he, not alone, has depicted development essentially as a process of the transfer and economically efficient use of resources. The shortfalls could be made up for by more generosity at the giving end and more efficiency at the receiving end.
Now, however, McNamara gives off a sense of having bumped up against the limits of technocracy and noblesse oblige. Noting that past emphasis on growth has left hundreds of millions of the world's citizens untouched by the development process, he says, "We do know what to do. We must design an effective overall development strategy that can both accelerate econimic growth and channel more of the benefits of that growth toward meeting the basic human needs of the absolute poor."
"The problem is that doing this requires changes in both developed and developing countries which may cut across the personal interests of a privileged minority who are more affluent and more politically influential." Heady stuff for someone who, by class and citizenship and international situation, is himself of "a privileged minority" and whose bank cannot possibly avoid dealing with the "privileged minority" of governmental power holders and international financiers.
McNamara goes on to urge that, within poor countries, development funds be focused on expanding job and earning opportunities for the very poor on and off the farm. In most poor countries the ruling elites, supported by just such bulwarks of economic orthodoxy as the World Bank, have substantially ignored this sector.
He also demands a redesign of public services: "Wealthy urban and rural families, often constituting a very small but politically influential and elite group, have frequently managed to preempt a disproportionate share of scarce public services. . . . Piped-water allocation, the availability of electricity, the cost and routing of public transportation, the location of schools, the accessibility of public health facilities - all of these are national and local government decisions that are critical to the living standards of the very poor, who have no margin for alternative and no political access to policymakers."
"To reverse this trand," McNamara concludes, "governments must be prepared to make tough and politically sensitive decisions. . . ."
Well, for what it's worth, I think McNamara's stress on the arbitrary or political aspect of the way the good things in life are distributed, especially within the borders of a given country, is on the money. You may say he is rediscovering the wheel. You may ask how a bank structed as he is - of and by the "privileged minority" - will move outside its own structure. You may wonder at the anomaly of a man of McNamara's own well-publicized lifestyle embracing so suggestively radical a doctrine.
It is not the only explanation possible for the gross poverty existing, and expanding, in the world. It would be interesting, for example, for McNamara to report on the extent to which the World Bank has become simply a creature of OPEC, sustaining its customers, protecting its earnings. But it is analytically a feasible explanation and politically in increasingly acceptable one. Around the world there is being launched a rhetorical, if not yet in most places an actual, war on poverty. The World Bank is the latest recruit.
Two ideas on poverty are now vying in the international arena. One demands a redistribution of resources among nations. (The Third World demands the "New International Economic Order"; the industrial democracies offer back "dialogue.") The second idea centers on a redistribution of resources within nations; McNamara's idea mostly fits in here. There is an overlap between the ideas, but some tension, too. They define what an increasing part of international life is about these days.