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New Retrospective on President McNamara by his Personal Assistants

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The six personal assistants of President McNamara, 1981. From left to right: Rainer Steckhan, Leif Christoffersen, Anders Ljungh, Sven Burmester, Caio Koch-Weser, and Olivier Lafourcade. (Photo donated by the authors of the publication.)

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Click to access the publication.
Robert Strange McNamara, 5th president of the World Bank Group (1968 – 1981), oversaw 13 formative years in the Bank’s history.  During his tenure, McNamara had six personal assistants (PAs).  These PAs, under the leadership of Olivier Lafourcade and in partnership with the Office of the Chief Archivist, have produced a new book, Robert S. McNamara at the World Bank: In Retrospect, launched this July, forty years after McNamara’s departure.

While McNamara’s pre-Bank involvement in the Vietnam war has been the subject of much research and even a documentary, The Fog of War, his time at the World Bank Group is less known, but crucial in the evolution of the institution.  According to our Managing Director for Operations, Axel van Trotsenburg, who authored the book’s Foreword, McNamara was “one of the most impactful and transformative presidents of the World Bank.” The World Bank Group McNamara arrived at in 1968 was still tied to its roots in the post-WWII world.  It was smaller, less complex, and employed a much narrower scope in its lending and activities.  At the end of his tenure, McNamara acknowledged both the expansion of the institution and its yet unrealized potential in his final annual meetings speech:

“The World Bank - born out of the ruins of WWII - has grown into one of the most constructive instruments of human aspiration and progress. And yet, it has only barely begun to develop its full potential for service and assistance.  There is so much more to do. So much more it ought to do to assist those who need its help.  Each one of us here can help make that happen.

How can we begin?

We must begin - as the founders of this great institution began - with vision. With clear, strong, bold vision.”

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President McNamara's first day of work, April 1, 1968 (1894060).
McNamara oversaw a fundamental shift in the Bank Group’s mission from a lender for reconstruction and development to guiding government policies and serving the poor.  He steered the institution through the end of the post-WWII era, the 1970s Oil Crisis, and a significant increase in staff and lending, while imparting a new vision focused on the alleviation of extreme poverty. His shifting of the Bank Group’s policies on population and health, social and rural development, program lending, and other areas reverberate through the institution 40 years later. 

The recollections of his personal assistants (Rainer Steckhan, Leif Christoffersen, Anders Ljungh, Sven Burmester, Caio Koch-Weser, and Olivier Lafourcade) give glimpses into the daily workings of the McNamara administration.  He started each day at 8am, climbing the 12 flights of stairs to his office!  They also touch on his social interactions with world leaders and others inside and outside the Bank.  Anecdotes concerning missions in Africa, the founding of the Brandt Commission, and the Bank’s reengagement with China balance a thorough discussion of McNamara’s policies and legacy.

The book includes personal reminiscences, memories, and anecdotes alongside analysis of McNamara’s annual speeches and policy changes.  The annual speeches, particularly his address in Nairobi in 1973, have long been of interest to historians, scholars, and the development community. These rare insights by those who worked mostly closely with him will be of interest to scholars of World Bank and development history and to development practitioners.

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McNamara with children in Peru, March 1976 (Bank Notes, April 1976, pg. 2).
The World Bank Group Archives strives to make Bank history more accessible to the public.  We are pleased to include the publication of the McNamara Retrospective as part of our commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Bank opening its doors for business on June 25, 1946. Other initiatives include our newly redesigned Archives website and a Country Director database.  In addition, the Archives has recently partnered with the Columbia University History Lab to offer various tools to better analyze and understand the records of Robert S. McNamara spanning the entirety of his presidency and consisting of speeches, daily schedules, travel briefings, minutes of meetings, correspondence and, other records.

The book is being released as part of the new Development Reflections series, which focuses on examining the Bank Group’s past to help inform present development practitioners and influence future operations.