LUXURY HOTELS AND RESORTS are hardly the only IFC investments that offer at best limited prospects for serving its poverty-fighting mandate. Founded just a dozen years after the World Bank itself, the IFC has in recent years become its fastest-growing unit. It now has a staff of some 3,400 people in 103 countries and made $15 billion in loan commitments in 2012 across about 580 projects -- more than double its 2006 total and a figure that's projected to grow to about $20 billion in the next few years.
The original notion was that while the World Bank was lending directly to poor countries, the IFC would stimulate the growth of private business, entrepreneurship, and financial markets in some of those same countries by lending to and investing in for-profit corporations. The founders, notably including a General Foods executive named Robert Garner, emphasized that the IFC would participate only in projects for which "sufficient private capital is not available on reasonable terms."
That concept has become muddied over the years, as well-heeled borrowers with excellent credit have sought to take advantage of the IFC's relatively attractive loan terms and other investment vehicles, plus, in some cases, the cachet associated with World Bank support. The IFC's growth got a boost in the early 1980s when it was permitted for the first time to raise money from the global capital markets by issuing bonds. More recently, its growth has accelerated as it has entered new businesses, including trade finance, derivatives, and private equity, sometimes to the annoyance of private banks with which it competes.
Today, the IFC's booming list of business partners reads like a who's who of giant multinational corporations: Dow Chemical, DuPont, Mitsubishi, Vodafone, and many more. It has funded fast-food chains like Domino's Pizza in South Africa and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Jamaica. It invests in upscale shopping malls in Egypt, Ghana, the former Soviet republics, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. It backs candy-shop chains in Argentina and Bangladesh; breweries with global beer behemoths like SABMiller and with other breweries in the Czech Republic, Laos, Romania, Russia, and Tanzania; and soft-drink distribution for the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and their competitors in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mali, Russia, South Sudan, Uzbekistan, and more.
The criticism of most such investments -- from a broad array of academics and watchdog groups as well as local organizations in the poor countries themselves -- is that they make little impact on poverty and could just as easily be undertaken without IFC subsidies. In some cases, critics contend, the projects hold back development and exacerbate poverty, not to mention subjecting affected countries to pollution and other ills.
The debate is swirling as the World Bank has a new leader, installed in July: Jim Yong Kim, an American physician who recently stepped down as president of Dartmouth College. The bank declined to make him available to comment for this article, and in his brief tenure so far, he has given little hint of his view of the IFC. In both his statement when he took office in July and on his first overseas visit, to Ghana's neighbor to the west, Ivory Coast, he did note briefly the importance of the IFC within the World Bank Group and of the private sector to global job creation.
The IFC is also in the middle of a change in leadership. Its former head, Lars Thunell, recently completed his term, and Chinese national Jin-Yong Cai, a Goldman Sachs partner who was in charge of the firm's Chinese banking operations, succeeded him in October. At that time, Kaldany, who had been serving as the IFC's acting CEO, stepped back to the post of vice president for global industries.
The IFC's operations have been the subject not only of outside criticism but of significant parts of 2011's stinging internal report and other critiques from within the World Bank. The 2011 document, in which the bank's Independent Evaluation Group examined the IFC's activities over the previous decade, portrayed a profit-oriented, deal-driven organization that often fails to reach the poor, and at times may even sacrifice the poor, in a drive to earn a healthy return on its investments: "Greater effort is needed in translating the strategic intentions into actions in investment operations and advisory services to enhance IFC's poverty focus."