At the spring joint World Bank/IMF meeting held in Washington DC, United States of America from April 19-21, 2013, it was the “unpredictable” Pope Francis I who stole the show. We shall come to that later.
The Holy Father’s first international venture beyond the sacred walls of the Vatican should have been guaranteed vast media coverage. Instead it was a complete blackout! Whitewash is probably more politically and racially correct. We shall also come to that later.
For now, let us masticate on this vignette from the relentless efforts of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to sustain the spirit of Bretton Woods. Breaking News (on Al Jazeera): Kaushik Basu, chief economist of the World Bank: “One thing that experts know, and that non-experts do not, is that they know less than non-experts think they do.”
This was followed by a master class for delegates to the World Bank/IMF conference, delivered by none other than Paul Krugman, a professor at Princeton University. The eminent scholar whose grasp of economics is in a class of its own chose his subject with an acute sense of mischief: “At the end of the day, it’s all about bubbles, babbles and bibles. I shall confine myself to bubbles. What is a bubble anyway? Surprisingly, there is no standard definition. But I would define it as a situation in which asset prices appear to be based on implausible or inconsistent views about the future. Dot.com prices in 1999 made sense only if you believed that many companies would all turn out to be a Microsoft. Similarly, housing prices in 2006 (in the United States of America) made sense if you believed that your home prices could keep rising much faster than buyers’ incomes for years to come.”
At the plenary session of the World Bank/IMF conference, the Holy Father clutched his Bible tightly and spoke from the heart: “I want to share with you the folk wisdom of my grandmother. ‘You can’t take it (wealth) with you,’ my grandmother used to say. You all should shun corruption and greed. Instead, you should reach out to the poor, the hungry, the humble and the forgotten. Let us look around, how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest [particularly small audit firms which are being devoured by the “Big Four”], greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation?
“The Church today, like Jesus 2000 years ago, wants to transmit hope, especially in the hearts of the simple, the humble, the poor, the forgotten, those who do not matter in the eyes of the world. We must atone for our pollution of our environment and repent of our personal sins, our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbour and towards the whole of creation.”
The Holy Father must have touched a very raw nerve. For the first few minutes afterwards the tension was of the supercharged category. It was explosive – with palpable prospects for a nuclear explosion. Suddenly Angel Gabriel intervened and miraculously the entire audience rose to its feet and delivered a standing ovation to Pope Francis I. It was an unprecedented outpouring of elation and emotion.
Ironically, the only dissenter was Father Brendan Hoban from Moygownagh, Ireland. He is the co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests which claims a followership of 2 million Irish people who attend Mass at least once a month. They are agitating for an end to celibacy as well as “inclusive ministry” (shorthand for appointment of women priests) and a holistic review/re-appraisal of sexual teaching/healing, particularly contraception.
Before the clearly overwhelmed Pope could leave the podium, he was surprisingly joined by the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans (10 percent of whom are in Nigeria). “I am here to confirm that there is no rivalry between the Pope and me,” he said. “Pope Francis has 2.5 million followers on Twitter but mine is only 29,000. No problem; no sweat. This is not the first time I am addressing bankers. Indeed, I am often asked whether the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to tell bankers how to bank. Without being immodest, perhaps I should let you know that for the past one year I have been a member of the World Bank Banking Standards Commission. I happen to know a bit about banking. I have spent 35 years looking at them. Besides, being the Archbishop of Canterbury is somewhat like running an oil company.
“Supposing I was chief executive of Shell. Replacing their reserves every year, that is quite an intractable problem. Shell operates in about 200 countries with a vast range of conflicting cultures and over 2,500 languages. The Anglican Church operates in 164 countries and that is similar to the complexity of Shell’s operations in a way. The main difference is power – the chairman and chief executive of Shell can make things happen. But I have almost no power. Influence but not power. The power is in the hands of the bankers!”
Next on stage was the new president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who announced that one of his innovations was to ensure that each delegate was provided with a copy of Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus the philosopher who was born in 1913 into a poor settler French family in Algeria. His phenomenal intellect earned him the Nobel prize in literature in 1957 (when he was only 44). He was the second-youngest writer ever to receive the prize after Rudyard Kipling. Three years later, he was dead – in a ghastly car crash. 47 is a dangerous age to die. His everlasting legacy is his profound concern with universal questions of human existence.
The World Bank president insists that under his leadership, that is the roadmap that would ensure the enduring relevance of the Bank. The World Bank is ready to endorse what Susan Rubin Suleiman summed up as “Camus’s steadfast rejection of violence, even when it is committed in the name of high principles”.
Camus was even more explicit. He was an idealist going by his book The Rebel: “Not all means are acceptable, even when employed for noble ends; terrorism and torture destroy the very goals they are supposed to serve. Although it is historically true that values such as the nation and humanity cannot survive unless one fights for them, fighting alone cannot justify them (nor can force).”
The World Bank president is an intellectual in his own right and it is no secret that he shares Camus’s eloquent and elegant definition as well as delineation of the responsibilities of intellectuals in times of hatred. Nigeria is a case in point: “It is to explain the meaning of words in such a way as to sober minds and calm fanaticisms.”
As always, Nigeria had the largest delegation to the World Bank/IMF meeting. The Holy Father went back on stage to deliver a special sermon directed at Africans in general and Nigerians in particular: “The Vatican has been inundated with photographs of preachers with private jets and dapper pastors who call themselves prophets. They are unrelenting in their evangelism – by offering explicit promise of prosperity, miracles and abundance which translate into riches on earth. They want to poach Catholics. You must remain steadfast. There is no salvation without sacrifice or crown without the cross.”
Randle is a former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and former chairman of KPMG Nigeria and Africa Region. He is currently the chairman, JK Randle Professional Services.
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