Images_2By John Hope Bryant
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Operation HOPE

Other than what I have heard from news media, my friends in Democratic political circles and loud demonstrators outside events featuring Mr. Paul Wolfowitz as keynote speaker, I don’t really know Mr. Wolfowitz in his role as one of the principal “architects of the Iraq War.”

I of course know that this is a large part of his professional history, and he will have to live with this as probably the largest part of his personal legacy too. Like many, many Americans, I simply wish the Iraq War had never happened in the first place; but again, this is simply not the incarnation of Paul Wolfowitz that I met, nor is it the one that I came to know at the World Bank. 

And so, which one is the correct view of the controversial Mr. Paul Wolfowitz?  War Hawk, or compassionate advocate for the world’s poor?  I will argue here, in fact, that he is both.

You see, I met the “World Bank” Wolfowitz, and I met him first at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in January, 2006, following his speech there and with me attending as a Young Global Leader for the Forum. Not knowing any better, and again, not focusing on his then well known “Iraq” portfolio history, I approached him like I would just about anyone else; open. Result: he responded like anyone else. Reasonable; generally interested in what I had to say; concerned (about Africa); focused on things that produce results, move agendas and change lives. 

Button-holing the man “stage left” as he was trying to be both gracious to those who approached and leave at the same time, I made my standard pitch for the poor, and our empowerment work. As I spoke, his eyebrows raised, showing glimpses of interest. And then, I said those magic words – “…and Ambassador Andrew Young is my mentor and our global spokesman.” That was it. All it took to seal me in his consciousness for follow up later. You see, it seems that my personal hero, and our global spokesman at Operation HOPE, Ambassador Andrew Young, was also his (hero) as well. He asked me what he could do for me, and as usual I was not shy in my response. I wanted him to do “a lot,”  and certainly more than he was comfortable with.

I asked World Bank President Wolfowitz to start by coming to Anacostia, a third-world country-like environment located a mere ten minutes outside of Washington, D.C., to see our work for himself. Of course, he could have said no; that he was extremely busy and had to focus his limited time, attention and energies on developing countries outside the U.S., etc, etc, but he did not. What he did ask me to do was to follow up once we were back in the states.

Fast forward.

On May 6th, 2006, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz joined Ambassador Andrew Young, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and myself in making a little American history; Wolfowitz attended and keynoted the first ever Anacostia Economic Summit, marking the first ever public policy speech, by either a World Bank president or a Federal Reserve Chairman, in any inner-city community anywhere in America. 

I was proud and pleased that Mr. Wolfowitz made the personal decision to extend dignity to the good people of Anacostia, by extending the prestige of the World Bank brand to this U.S. inner-city community in need, but again, …I wanted more.

On the heels of the Anacostia Economic Summit I asked Mr. Wolfowitz to consider supporting our bold expansion into mother Africa, teaching financial literacy, dignity and entrepreneurship to youth, and economic education and economic empowerment to adults, families and the business community.  A grass roots focus in Africa on providing a hand up, and not simply a hand out.  Now, there are many seemingly legitimate and rational reasons that Mr. Wolfowitz could have given me in turning down my second request, including but not limited to (a) our lack of experience in Africa (at that point we only operated within the continental United States), and (b) the fact that the World Bank and its affiliates really had not up until that point been directly involved with financial literacy as an agenda item in their mainline portfolio. Yes, he could have, but he didn’t. What he did do was set up a meeting for me, within weeks of my request, attended by several members of his senior team, and himself, back in Washington, D.C.; offering me a unique stage to share my vision and plan. I did share my vision, and following several hard-nosed meetings that followed with other senior executives from World Bank Group affiliate IFC (the International Finance Corporation, which has invested more than $1 billion into Africa over the last year alone), and within three months time of my initial meeting with Mr. Wolfowitz in his D.C. office, I had a quarter million dollar commitment to launch our first international initiative, Banking on Our Future, South Africa! Almost as or more important than the funding commitment itself, which covered a two year period, I now had the credibility and backing of the World Bank family for my global “silver rights” movement. No small turn of events, and all within less than a year from the date I met the man in Davos, no doubt. I cannot get my life long friends to move this quickly.

With IFC and World Bank support, my friends and national partner Citi (Citigroup, the world’s largest financial services company) soon signed on as our first global partner, committing an additional $100,000 and volunteers in South Africa, and then came Standard Bank, one of South Africa’s largest banks, making a $250,000 commitment plus volunteers, and then came a historic memorandum of agreement between US based Operation HOPE and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and thereafter a public/private partnership with the South African government, and partnerships with CIDA University, Bolland College and others – but it all started with IFC, the World Bank, and my 5 minute impromptu conversation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — with one Paul Wolfowitz.

And so, sure, I can understand when people get upset with him as they focus almost exclusively on his background with the U.S. Defense Department. I agree with some of it. I can even understand the world’s disappointment in how he handled the controversy around his then girlfriend and her promotion at the World Bank. But what I don’t understand, and can’t accept, is when people simply dismiss this man as “one who does not care about Africa and the poor.” That somehow his professed sins were intentional and full of malice, but his goodwill somehow faked and inauthentic.  This simply doesn’t add up, in his life nor our own. Very few people wake up in the morning wishing other people ill, and even rarer do these individuals (wh
o genuinely wish others ill) sign up for the pressing and generally unappreciated glare of public service. Did he screw up, you bet. Did he care, and at least try to do right at the World Bank, you bet. A friend once told me that “the wrong answer was the right one that didn’t work.” 

Other than meeting the man in Davos, Switzerland and the one meeting in his office, about the only places I have actually seen Mr. Wolfowitz has been in African countries and inner-cities in America. This does not sound like a man playing a game.  From Anacostia outside of Washington, D.C. to Nigeria to Atlanta, Georgia, I saw a different Wolfowitz show up, and make real commitments too.

And so, while others reserve only condemnation for his service as World Bank president, I say, thank you. Imperfect, you bet. As bad as advertised, not a chance.

No good deed shall go unpunished.

And so, thank you Mr. Wolfowitz, for listening when you didn’t have too.  I am not a government minister of portfolio nor a Head of State, but simply a passionate and concerned American citizen who cares.

Thank you Mr. Wolfowitz for respecting the inherent dignity of those seemingly without a voice, in inner-city Anacostia; a community never once visited by any one of our 43 sitting U.S. Presidents, on the official business of our great country. But you did.

Thank you Mr. Wolfowitz for making the World Bank machinery stop long enough to listen to the hopes and dreams of a bold young man from Compton, California and South Central Los Angeles; a vision seeking to connect empowerment work for the poor from South Central to South Africa.

Thank you Mr. Wolfowitz for your commitment, through IFC, which just last week allowed me to stand in Johannesburg, South Africa, surrounded by our numerous partners, the IFC included, as we announced our bold 5-year commitment to raise $1 million and to reach and teach more than 50,000 South African youth and women in financial literacy, dignity and entrepreneurship.

Thank you for not calling me once, over the entire course of our relationship, seeking credit for yourself or the World Bank for the good work we were up too. What I do remember you asking me for was simple and wholly appropriate; “keep your word John, and do a good job for the people of Africa.”

Finally, thank you Mr. Wolfowitz for making Africa a priority during your presidency. What the World Bank president says, and where he focuses his energy and attention matters.

And for those who simply cannot accept what I now attempt to say good about this man, because they cannot forget yet alone forgive his assumed mistakes at Defense, I would remind them that Wolfowitz was not the first to turn to the World Bank, and a mission focused on the healing of this world and its poor, following a controversial reign at Defense. That first prize here would go to none other than then former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara of the Nixon Administration, who famously led us straight into the Vietnam War, and who later went on to run, guess what — the World Bank. 

What I am saying, and no I have no actual facts to back up this contention, is that maybe, just maybe, it was actually their very involvement in failed decisions tied to global conflicts of war, that finally led these same men to the front door of the World Bank; seeking possibly a measure of God’s redemption, and trying to do what they could with the rest of their productive lives to make the world better. 

And if this is the case, and I understand that it is a big “if,” how is this any different from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, working feverously today in the vineyards of post-Presidency public service around the world, after what many view today as his less than totally successful Presidency? 

Whether I am right or wrong is no matter, because there is one reason more than any other why we should forgive Wolfowitz his shortcomings. We should forgive him because we too seek forgiveness – for something we have done.

We are all sinners, and as Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Church once famously said, “…a saint is a sinner that got up.”

Well, thank you Paul Wolfowitz for trying to get up, and for seeking to lift mother Africa with you. You tried, I know, to “lift as you rose,” and I for one felt your impact and your particular imprint as president of the World Bank.

Onward with HOPE

John Hope Bryant

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