Ismail Serageldin


Farewell to the World Bank

 07/10/2000 | At World Bank, 12th Floor Gallery, Washington, DC, USA

 My Friends,


It has finally happened. I speak for the last time as a member of the Staff of the World Bank. After 28 years, the time to move on has come.


I had thought to steal away quietly, with no fuss or fanfare, to fold my tent and go silently into that good night, a passageway to new horizons, to new adventures.


But my friend Ian Johnson would not let it be so. He organized this get together and invited some of my closest and dearest collaborators over the years. Thank you Ian for this and other gestures of friendship and affection that you have made towards me in the last few weeks and days. I will cherish them.


Special thanks to Jim Wolfensohn, who took time from his busy schedule to be here, and who spontaneously took the microphone for these kind words of appreciation of my years of service.


Let me say a words of thanks to Jim..


For his brilliant leadership. For his profound humanism, for his caring and compassion, for his vision, for his daring and his innovative approaches.


The Bank has truly changed under Jim Wolfensohn. From the innovation marketplace to the town-hall meetings, from the EDP to the deployment of truly powerful field offices, to the holistic approach to development , the CDF and the participatory approaches, to remembering our end-client, the poor, and daring to confront debt as well as the cancer of corruption … All these changes in substance as well as message, are inextricably linked with Jim Wolfensohn’s leadership. I have told Jim many times, that everything he has said since joining the Bank has been music to my ears! Today I wanted to say this publicly.


Thank you Jim.


Let me also thank each and every one who spoke for their most kind words. Also to the many who did not officially speak today but who by their presence here today eloquently express the feelings that they harbor. I know also that many friends, some retired, some not, but who are not here today, also have kind thoughts of our years of collaboration and friendship. To all of them also a deep thank you.


But at a time like this, it is more than polite exchanges of thanks that matter, it is the enormous feeling of cherished memories, joint causes, unfinished tasks and dedicated and continuing effort that must come to the fore.


As I said, it is for me – as it has been for some of you, and will be for the others - a moment of transition..


Transitions are moments to look back and to look forward. As I look back at my 28 years with the Bank, it is with fondness and appreciation.


What an adventure it has been..


I have been privileged, truly privileged, to lead in part, to follow in part, and mostly to be one of a group of truly outstanding professionals. For all of you here, all of the Bank staff are truly outstanding professionals. Your work is marked by


Determination to make a difference; and
Commitment, tempered with caring.


A long standing commitment to the best of the development challenge has now, under Jim Wolfensohn’s leadership been given official voice. Everywhere we can see "our dream: a world free of poverty".


It is what I and all of you at the Bank are devoting our lives to. You will continue doing this directly from the Bank, and I will continue to help in my own way, from wherever my steps lead me.


As for myself, I am not going to open a private practice or join a Banking firm. In my heart, I am not a Wall Street type, although some think that I could have thrived there. However, a friend, retiree from the World Bank, told me that I would not be happy there. I asked why? He said, "Because I know you, because in this firm there are some 15,000 persons, and from the chairman to the janitor, no one gives a damn about all the things you care about". "Like what?" I asked. He answered: "You know, human rights, status of women, poverty, environment, and all that. So you would not be too happy, just closing deals and worrying about the bottom line!" In my heart, I knew he was right.


So, I will be passing up the possibility of making "big bucks" and going back to Egypt, and back to academe.. For I am, at heart, concerned with knowledge, and I know full well that it is enriching in a different sort of way…


And thus it has always been, taking a page from Ubayd-i Zakani’s Kulliyyat, a 13th C Persian funny book:


"A tumbler scolded his son and said, "you do no work and you waste your time in idleness. How often must I tell you to practice somersaults and to learn how to dance on a rope and to make a dog jump through a hoop so that you can achieve something with your life. If you don’t listen to me, I swear by God I shall abandon you to the Madrasa to learn their dead and useless science and to become a scholar so as to live in contempt and misery and adversity and never be able to earn a penny wherever you go."


And so to the scholar’s lot I go. More interestingly, I hope to be associated with the New Library of Alexandria:


The Bibliotheca Alexandrina! That mythical institution that was not only the first universal library, but also, the first university, the first museum, the first research center, and the first think tank. For six centuries, it was the center of world learning, and promoted universal knowledge. It was a beacon of science, rationality, tolerance and philosophical diversity in a world of bigotry and superstition.


What a great tradition to try to live up to today! How important to try to revive this tradition today!


For those of us working in Research or in development, I have also found two other "firsts" that the Library of Alexandria should be credited for:


About 2200 years ago, Timon of Athens complained about all the money that the Ptolemies of Egypt were spending for "…some bookworms to scribble in the chicken coop [cage] of the Muses" referring to the scholars meeting in the courtyard of the Library complex’ Temple of the Muses, from which the word "museum" is derived. This, to my knowledge must be the first complaint about the spending of money on research rather than on "more practical" things… Little has changed in over two millennia!


Also some two millennia ago, we find a complaint from An Alexandrian citizen to the Governor of Alexandria, about the King bringing in all these "…foreigners who, for their presumed expert knowledge, were paid rich stipends from the public treasury, and on which they paid no taxes!" … Undoubtedly the first, but certainly not the last, complaint about expatriate experts!


And what experts they were! The best minds of the world. It is there that Euclid wrote his "Elements of Geometry", Aristothenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within an accuracy of 90 miles, and Archimedes developed his screw to raise water!


What a challenge to try to revive that glorious tradition..

To make it a truly international center of excellence in every way...


But enough of my possible future adventures. Let me turn to your work here, let me share some concerns and some hopes…


Today, despite the good intentions, the good work, the depth of the commitment and the professional expertise harnessed to the task, the Bank is under attack once more.


Today, the Bank is once again challenged by the world and the Civil society. If in the early nineties it was fair to characterize our failures of vision and our lack of understanding of environmental issues or the lack of attention to social ones, why are we the target of attack today?


In some ways, it is a reminder that we must persevere, and continue to improve our work to match our rhetoric, and to truly live the openness and participation that we preach. In some ways it is a response to the enormous advance of globalization.


Globalization raises hopes and fears. Expectations are high for some, fears are higher for many. Anxieties about the unknown are great, and never before has the unknown been rushing at us at such a pace. Concern about the ability to tame the global markets and ensure some equity for the poor and the weak is justified, even if the means of checking the one and ensuring the other are uncertain.


The Bank -- you -- are the lightening rod of these fears, concerns and anxieties.


Take that as a compliment. A testimonial to your importance and to the impact of your work.


But as I leave you, I know that the temper of the times is such that you will have difficulties… For we live in times where, in Walcott’s words, "… any group can scream injury and litigate against the dead, sue History, and demand compensation,..."


Yet I entreat you not to be deaf to these concerns. We must learn to act with openness and tolerance for the contrarian view… build on the common ground of idealism, of caring, that is prevalent among many of the protesters to promote a vision of development that matches our vision of the world free of poverty.. That is a difficult path to take, but it is one where if we persevere we can build true coalitions of the caring.


The challenge is great, but it must be met.


Consider for a moment the alternative if we fail to build this coalition of the caring and harness the world’s potential to serve our vision of a world free of poverty… Allow me to borrow from Shakespeare and return to themes that I first broached with some of you well on eight to ten years ago, allow me to repeat some of my favorite lines and recurrent themes..


For There is a tide ...


There is a tide of humanity,

Millions of young people demanding the right to a decent life,

a life without fear or despair,

a chance to break free of the misery of poverty...


That tide, that unstoppable tide of human ambition will not be denied...


And if it is denied, then it will be a tide of anger, of hate, of violence, that will engulf all before it and consume us all in its fiery embrace of rejected present and foregone tomorrows..


There is a tide ..

A Tide of suffering,

Of Children malnourished, stunted, deprived,

They haunt our television screens and our dreams..


In Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Bosnia, in Korea... Our brothers and sisters, our children, fellow human beings ..

Left to their fate...

While a new class of rich consumers discuss the prices of everything and the value of nothing...


There is a tide of pollution

from our cities, our cars and our factories..


A tide of destructive chemicals in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe...


There is a tide of ignorance and greed


A tide of advertising images that invade our living rooms, dull our senses and shape our consciousness all at the same time

A tide of news, that washes out yesterday’s stories of pith and moment with today’s latest gossip or trivia

A tide of information, blurring meaning in countless billions of bits and bytes…


There is a tide of intolerance and obscurantism,

That wants to stop the march of time and freeze our minds

That teaches hatred and fear


And against that tide we must harness another tide...



The tide of new awareness


For there is a tide of understanding, of caring


A tide of awareness that the rights of all: women, minorities, the weak and the poor are indivisible from our own...


There is a tide of awareness that we cannot let the world drift into inequality, misery and environmental degradation,


There is a tide of knowledge, science and new technologies, that can be harnessed for the benefit of all…


Yes...there is a tide in the affairs of Men ...

which taken at the flood leads on to fortune


Fortune, not just in terms of more economic growth,


Fortune in terms of true well-being.


Fortune in terms of leaving a better world for our children


Yes ...

There is a tide that leads on to fortune.



Omitted, all the voyage of their lives

is bound in shallows








Then the poor will indeed suffer, the world will indeed be harmed, and our future will indeed be bound in shallows and in miseries ..



On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures


The sea is indeed full, it is full of threats, and full of promise.


We have the opportunity not just to navigate this sea, but in fact to show how we can create a new society, a better tomorrow …


For there is a tide out there ...




There is a tide in the Affairs of Men...

Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their lives

is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat

and we must take the current when it serves

or lose our ventures.



We will Not lose our ventures.


We will help create the new world, guided by a vision…


A vision of a caring society where (in keeping with Gandhi) there would be




NO Politics without principle

NO Wealth without work

NO Commerce without morality

NO Pleasure without conscience

NO Education without character

NO Science without humanity

NO worship without sacrifice


A vision where a people’s greatness is measured by the quality of the lives of their poorest citizens not by the size of their armies or the scale of their buildings..


A vision where the future is for all, in Boorstin's felicitous phrase, as open-ended as knowledge, as random as play, and as surprising as human imagination and ingenuity

Worship without sacrifice


For that is the true meaning of a world without poverty…


It will not be easy. And against the doubters and the cynics, the ill-informed and the ill-intentioned, you must continue to persevere, and say, along with Henley, :




And In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody but unbow’d.


It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.


I am proud to have been one of you, and I hope that I will continue as an alumnus of the Bank to be one of you…


Thank you all and a fond farewell!

we fail to engage the streets of our cities and the fields of our countryside... we fail to change the way people think about themselves and the world... and in miseries ......

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