Former head of World Bank encourages Wilson School students to look beyond data
Robert Zoellick, who was president of the World Bank during the global financial crisis and held that position until this past June, challenged public policy students not to simply analyze a problem but to actually solve it in a lecture hosted by the Wilson School on Thursday.
Zoellick began by noting this is a great moment to be studying policy problems. “It is a time of various challenges,” he said, “but also a time of tremendous opportunity.”
He then addressed the transitioning role developing countries play on the global stage. Since a decade before the financial crisis, developing countries like Mexico and Turkey have become the “driving engine” of the world economy and want to be “the stewards of their own futures,” Zoellick said.
“Global businesses and investments are aware of these changes, and they’re racing to catch up,” Zoellick said. “But I think policy makers are still a bit behind.”
Zoellick also argued for the need for American diplomacy to consult the private sector when shaping public policy. He wrote in an article in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month that economics is an important “tool of diplomacy lost today.”
He then offered advice to the Wilson School students in the audience. The lecture was open to the public, but Zoellick said he was primarily addressing public policy students, who made up the bulk of the audience.
Ever since he received joint degrees in law and public policy from Harvard, where he is now a senior fellow, Zoellick said he has witnessed public policy programs place emphasis on important training in “quantitative skills.”
“And that training offers an excellent foundation,” Zoellick noted. “But what’s really exciting about making public policy isn’t evaluating and analyzing and predicting. It’s delivering results.”
During his time as president of the World Bank, Zoellick said he has seen colleagues who are extremely “sealed” and who studied the data and knew their research, but did not have the most practical economic solutions.
“Textbook answers are not enough,” Zoellick said. “The best textbook solution didn’t work for our client.”
Zoellick said the most important characteristic of the team he worked with while serving as U.S. trade representative from 2001 to 2005 was its ability to “close the deal” while working with Congress.
In order to find solutions to the world’s problems, quantitative analysis needs to be complemented by qualitative analysis, he said. This qualitative analysis consists of studying history and understanding the world’s past successes and pitfalls.
“History offers perspectives on problems,” Zoellick said. He explained that successful policy makers, dating back to the founding fathers of America, have always looked back to history when considering problems.
In addition to the importance of history, Zoellick advised students not to forget the word “public” in “public policy.”
“You were probably drawn to the [Wilson] School because you wanted to serve, and that involves a great responsibility of public trust,” Zoellick said. “So respect the public you serve, even when you disagree.”
Zoellick left his post at the World Bank in June and was replaced by Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim. Also on Thursday, Dartmouth named a permanent successor to Kim, Philip Hanlon.
Zoellick’s speech was given as part of the Wilson School’s “Leadership and Governance Program,” which invites esteemed public policy leaders to campus.
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