World Bank strips chief economist of some duties

Dr Paul Romer will remain chief economist, providing management with ''timely thought leadership on trends directly affecting our client countries'', said the World Bank's president.
Dr Paul Romer will remain chief economist, providing management with ''timely thought leadership on trends directly affecting our client countries'', said the World Bank's president. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

He is taken off management of research hub after staff rebelled against his combative style

WASHINGTON • The World Bank's chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of the word "and".

Dr Paul Romer is relinquishing oversight of the Development Economics Group (DEC), the research hub of the Washington-based development lender, according to an internal staff announcement seen by Bloomberg. Ms Kristalina Georgieva, the chief executive of the bank's biggest fund, will take over management of the unit on July 1.

Dr Romer will remain chief economist, providing management with "timely thought leadership on trends directly affecting our client countries", said World Bank president Jim Yong Kim. Dr Romer said he met resistance from staff when he tried to refine the way they communicate. "It's possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke."

It is unusual for the World Bank's chief economist not to run the DEC, which publishes original research, develops the bank's forecasts and oversees its data. The move raises questions about how much freedom the bank's economists will have to do outside-the-box research on policies to help the world's poorest.

"The chief economist is essentially parachuted into the bank and put in this very exalted position," said Dr Peter Lanjouw, former head of research into poverty and inequality within DEC.

"It takes some effort to become familiar with the... researchers in the group and the things that are being done. There was a lot of grumbling that Paul didn't seem interested," said Dr Lanjouw, now a professor at VU University in Amsterdam and editor of the World Bank Research Observer.

Dr Lanjouw, who consults for the bank, said he has spoken to DEC researchers about the matter.

Dr Romer, 61, assumed the role in October after taking leave from his position as a professor at New York University. His appointment was hailed as a coup for the World Bank, which is trying to maintain its status as a leading development voice at a time when governments in some rich nations are increasingly reluctant to finance the development of poor nations.

However, Dr Romer's combativeness did not endear him to some of the more than 600 economists who work in DEC, according to sources. He declared several positions redundant and enforced term limits on senior managers. He also cut more than US$1 million (S$1.4 million) in annual expenses from the group's budget.

Dr Romer asked for shorter e-mail messages and insisted presentations get straight to the point, cutting staff off if they talked too long, said another person familiar with the matter. He cancelled a regular publication that did not have a clear purpose, one source said.

Researchers did not like the curt way Dr Romer often conveyed his message. Staff were upset by what they saw as his abrasive e-mail, and they did not feel Dr Romer listened to their concerns. They were also flummoxed by some of his stylistic hang-ups, including a distaste for the conjunction "and".

Dr Romer was frustrated with what some see as the dense, convoluted style of many of the department's reports. He pushed researchers to write more clearly, using the active voice to be more direct. He said he was surprised by the defensiveness of the group's economists. "They felt under-appreciated. It reflected a kind of siege mentality that I can't quite understand."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'World Bank strips chief economist of some duties'. Print Edition | Subscribe