A Belgian at the head of the World Bank

Chris Simoens
23 September 2019

A glimpse behind the scenes

 

In November 2018, the Belgian Nathalie Francken was appointed alternate executive director of the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors. What does her function actually involve? Discover her story.
Portret van Nathalie Francken

 

Who?

Nathalie Francken, alternate executive director at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington

 

What?

As an alternate executive director of the constituency Belgium is part of, she is involved in the decision-making process on the World Bank’s projects and strategies within the Board of Executive Directors.

 

Why?

Belgium’s position on international cooperation must be communicated within the World Bank, extreme poverty must be eradicated and prosperity must be shared.

Career abroad

Working abroad, as well as development cooperation, have always attracted me. During my agricultural engineering studies - with specialisation in agricultural economics - I went to El Salvador to write my thesis. There I conducted a survey of 300 households for the NGO Trias. The aim was to examine the impact of micro-credits - small loans - on food security.

At the beginning of my doctoral studies, the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington needed assistance in processing a mass of data on land reform in West Africa. For three months, I worked on this with great enthusiasm and then completed my PhD.

Later on I lived abroad on a regular basis. For example, I worked as an economist at the African Development Bank in Tunisia and Tanzania. The African Development Bank is a regional development bank that, as the World Bank, provides cheap loans to developing countries. In Tanzania, I was also active for Irish Aid, the Irish development organisation.

 The World Bank crossed my path several more times. After all, I worked as a consultant in various departments, both in Washington and at the country office in Madagascar.

Besides, I worked for a year as production manager in a food company. We imported food products from North Africa. This experience taught me a lot about the private sector in developing countries.

Just before I left for Washington to assume my current position, I was chairman of the Board of Directors of the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel), I worked as a teacher and carried out research at the KU Leuven. I also was an advisor to the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid in the context of a policy supporting project.

All in all, I have followed a varied path that has prepared me well for my current tasks at the highest level of the World Bank.

 

The World Bank Group (WBG), it has two major objectives: (1) eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 (target 3%) and (2) ensure sustainable growth that also benefits the poorest 40% of the population.

A giant for development cooperation

It is no exaggeration to say that the World Bank is the world's largest institute for development cooperation (see box). Together with the other institutions of the World Bank Group (WBG), it has two major objectives: (1) eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 (target 3%) and (2) ensure sustainable growth that also benefits the poorest 40% of the population. It aims to achieve these objectives in three ways: (1) accelerating inclusive and sustainable economic growth; (2) increasing investment in human resources; and (3) improving resilience to global shocks and crises. This so-called "2 x 3" approach is fully in line with the Belgian development policy and with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The World Bank is a very large organisation with more than 16,000 employees and an administrative budget of around 2.8 billion dollars. 189 countries are represented there and its staff comes from no less than 177 countries. A highly international environment where it is very pleasant to work. But how do you handle such an organisation?

What is the World Bank group and what are its activities?

 

The World Bank group consists of 5 institutions:

 

1. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)

2. International Development Association (IDA)

Together, IBRD and IDA make up the World Bank, in particular that part that provides (cheap) loans or gifts, technical assistance and other forms of support to public institutions in developing countries. These are mainly large infrastructure projects such as rural electrification in Mali, improvement of public transport in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), access to water and improvement of agricultural services in Somalia.

 

3. International Finance Corporation (IFC)

IFC provides loans to private companies that invest in developing countries, and can in turn subscribe to the capital.

 

4. Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)

MIGA - a global counterpart to the Belgian company Credendo - provides investment guarantees against political risks to private investors. Objective: stimulate foreign investment in developing countries.

 

5. International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)

ICSID is the most important institution in the world for the settlement of international investment disputes.   

 

Each year, Belgium pays a variable contribution to the World Bank. In 2018, this contribution amounted to 59.40 million euros.

A seat on the Board of Executive Directors

The World Bank is headed by a Board of Executive Directors consisting of 25 executive directors and their alternate executive directors. Each director represents a country or a group of countries. I am alternate director of the 'constituency' Belgium is part of. The Austrian Günther Schönleitner has been a director since November 2018. Luxemburg, Austria, Hungary, Kosovo, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Belarus are members of the same constituency.

I am not only alternate director for IBRD and IDA, but also for IFC (see box). Besides I am director for MIGA. Together with Mr. Schönleitner, I follow up all the dossiers that are discussed at the Board of Directors: the various projects, strategies and so on. We represent the views of all the countries in our constituency. Our constituency is also a member of the budget committee and the committee on governance and administrative matters.

I am alternate director of the 'constituency' Belgium is part of. Luxemburg, Austria, Hungary, Kosovo, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Belarus are members of the same constituency.

Portret vann Heidy Rombouts
Heidy Rombouts
Portret van Marlène Beco
Marlène Beco

 

A fantastic team of 8 advisers including 2 Belgians, Marlène Beco and Heidy Rombouts, provides us its vital support. They thoroughly prepare all the dossiers before submitting them to the Board of Directors. They are also responsible for contacts with the authorities concerned in the countries of our constituency. Marlène (FPS Finance) focuses mainly on Central Africa and the dossiers of Belgian companies. Heidy (FPS Foreign Affairs) especially follows up the dossiers of the countries of Eastern and Southern Africa and is an expert on international cooperation in fragile and conflict situations.

Moreover we are a member of an informal committee that strives for gender equality within the Board of Directors. Currently, only 18% of the members of the Board of Directors are women! The Belgian representation is setting a good example as it consists exclusively of women although this is purely coincidental because only the best candidates are selected. Nevertheless, I am proud that Minister Alexander De Croo takes the gender issue to heart.

 

Belgian priorities

Within the WBG, we - I, together with Marlène and Heidy - promote the priorities of the Belgian policy on international cooperation. Of course, this requires some evaluation to be carried out together with our embassies and colleagues from the FPS Foreign Affairs and the FPS Finance in Brussels.

As we participate in the budget committee, we can closely monitor whether the Belgian contribution to the World Bank - and that of the other countries in the constituency - is spent as efficiently as possible. We also prepare the meetings of the WBG, together with our colleagues in Brussels, but also at the embassy in Washington and at the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, we accompany the Belgian ministers and their delegations in their visits.

Four workmen on the construction site of a hydroelectric power station under construction (Vietnam)
© Mai Ky/World Bank

As the World Bank supports projects including major infrastructure works, many Belgian companies could benefit from them. That is why we inform them about these possibilities, in cooperation with the various agencies for international business (Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), Agence Wallonne à l'Exportation et aux Investissements étrangers (AWEX) and Brussels Invest & Export).

We also facilitate exchanges between the World Bank Group and our Belgian knowledge institutions and civil society. For the World Bank is not only an investment bank, but also a solid knowledge and advice centre, which is at the top in the field of development economics. It also offers a wide variety of interesting lectures and training courses.

 

5 pairs of eyes

I think that, in general, the World Bank is doing well, although I can understand the criticism. It would appear that certain projects do not always benefit the poor or harm the environment, etc. The Board of Directors definitely makes efforts to remedy this. On 1 October 2018, for example, a new 'environmental and social framework' came into force, to which our predecessors in the Belgian constituency made a major contribution.

From now on, the issues that can arise in the social and environmental fields will be dealt with more systematically. Think of climate change, equal participation and involvement of stakeholders or the impact on working conditions. In fact, the WBG has '5 pairs of eyes' that monitor its functioning and adjust it where necessary: the inspection, an internal audit, an independent evaluation group, an institutional integrity department and an ombudsman for IFC and MIGA.

The WBG has '5 pairs of eyes' that monitor its functioning and adjust it where necessary: the inspection, an internal audit, an independent evaluation group, an institutional integrity department and an ombudsman for IFC and MIGA.

By the end of this year, a new strategy on operation in fragile contexts and conflict-sensitive situations will be completed. By 2030, half of the poor will be living in unstable environments or in countries at war, where extreme poverty will rise exponentially. The WBG can therefore only achieve its objectives if it can intervene effectively in these countries. This requires a different way of working as well as special staff qualifications, more flexible procedures and stronger partners. The new strategy helps to determine how the WBG should act in such situations and how it can help reduce fragility and conflict.

 

Promoting Belgian expertise

The World Bank Group includes 73 Belgians with a permanent contract and about 70 consultants with a temporary contract. In 2018, Minister Alexander De Croo signed an agreement with the World Bank to allow young Belgian talents to enter the bank. We are also trying to give more visibility to the existing recruitment programmes and are planning a visit to Belgium in October 2019.

I will be working as an alternate director for 2 to 4 years. What will follow is yet to be determined. In any case, we enjoy living in Washington DC, a quiet and very diverse city with lots of greenery and playgrounds for our children who are 7 and 5 years old. The museums are freely accessible and there are many music performances.

Our children attend an American public school and we are really impressed by the hospitality and the way this institution integrates them as non-native speakers.

 

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