No.13 - December 2013

by Richard Jolly

The UN and the World Bank: Time for Closer Relations



UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim undertook joint-missions to Africa in May and November 2013. Why was this even news? It is high time to develop much closer relations between the World Bank, the IMF and the UN. This FUNDS Briefing paper considers the options.

At the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, the clear intention was for the World Bank and the IMF to be an integral part of the UN. Instead, tension between the formal UN status and the de facto operational independence of the IMF and the World Bank has existed since 1946, and much has been lost over the years as a result.   All parts of the UN and of the World Bank have suffered, with consequences for borrowing and investments, planning and delivery.

Internationally, the separation has led to multilateral donor funding increasingly being channeled to the Bank or to Bank-led projects, leaving most UN organizations starved of core funding and ever more dependent on uncertain and limited supplementary funding. 

Collaboration is difficult because of the total contrast in voting systems. Unlike the UN, with its one-country-one-vote system, in the Bretton Woods Institutions votes are in proportion to shares, and shares are allocated to ensure a majority for industrialized countries. The Bank and the IMF thus are the preferred institutions of the donor countries, while the UN is more popular with developing countries.  

The purpose of this briefing note is to explore how closer collaboration might help all groups of countries in both the UN and the World Bank and lead to a stronger set of international institutions able to meet the needs and challenges of the twenty-first century.


Four areas of action can be identified in which collaboration between the Bank and the UN could lead to stronger and more effective action than by either institution acting alone:

1.  Human rights and human development

2.  Climate change and environmental action 

3.  Pursuing equity and diminishing inequalities worldwide 

4.  The dogma of austerity and structural adjustment 

The New Relationship?

Much more is required than simple expressions of goodwill. On both sides, but particularly on the side of the Bank, there must be serious rethinking of current approaches and a willingness to listen and learn from other institutions. 

The positions taken by China, India, and other emerging powers will be critical. If emerging powers are willing to use their growing economic leverage within the international institutions, serious change could follow. Without it, little can be expected beyond cosmetic tinkering.

In the longer run, only changes in voting structures at the UN and the Bank will ensure closer collaboration. If these changes could be brought together, the stage would be set for serious collaboration among intergovernmental organizations.

Richard Jolly is Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He was UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director (1982-95), architect and co-author of UNDP’s widely-acclaimed Human Development Report (1996-2000), and co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project (2000-10). He has written many articles and books on development, including most recently (with Louis Emmerij and Thomas G. Weiss) UN Ideas That Changed the World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) and UNICEF: Global Governance That Works (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2014). 
Add comment

Security code

08:41:06 26.02.2014 | SAT GOEL
World Bank & THE UN
There is a lot of duplication of development work in many UN organs. This needs to be avoided. There are alot opportunities for the World Bank on one side and UNIDO, UNDP, WHO, UNICEF, FAO on the other side to work together. While the World Bank is largely professionally staffed, most other UN organs are staffed by the bureaucrats of the member govts.