What I’ve Learned from ADB’s 50-Year History

ADB’s first loan to the Pacific financed the construction of Faleolo Airport in Apia, Samoa, in 1969.
ADB’s first loan to the Pacific financed the construction of Faleolo Airport in Apia, Samoa, in 1969.

By Peter McCawley

Some major lessons stand out about the past, and provide pointers for the future.

Earlier this year, when the work of our team preparing the book on the 50-year history of ADB neared completion, many colleagues asked what writing the book—launched today—had taught me about ADB and the Asia-Pacific region.

Summarizing the experiences of dozens of countries and of ADB’s work across five decades is not easy. At the broadest level, though, some major lessons stand out about the past, and provide pointers for the future.

First, it is clear from the remarkable transformation that has occurred in Asia and the Pacific over the past five decades that it is possible for rapid development to be sustained over long periods of time. The two basic conditions are maintaining peace and security, and implementing good policies.

It is notable, too, that in the 1950s and early 1960s, the prospects for developing Asia were not encouraging. Indeed, for the first half of the 20th century, average living standards in the three most populous countries—the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), India, and Indonesia—hardly increased at all.

But as the determination to promote change and modernization took hold across the region, the pace of development accelerated. Living standards began to rise in the PRC, Southeast Asia, and South Asia for many millions of people in a way that had never been seen before in the developing world.

Continuity and change at ADB

The second lesson is the importance of both continuity and change within the bank.

There has been continuity, in that key aspects of the role that ADB should play in the region were clearly set down by ADB’s founders in the 1965 Charter. The ideas in the Charter, outlining the vision for the Bank, came to shape the character of ADB during its first three decades.

  ADB’s history shows rapid development can be sustained over long term

The approach was described in 1993 by then President Kimimasa Tarumizu as ADB’s “three-fold role: developmental, financial, and regional.”

But there has been much change as well. During the first decade (1967-76), the bank’s first president, Takeshi Watanabe, placed great emphasis on the need to establish a strong reputation as a reliable bank in international financial markets and within Asia-Pacific.

In the second and third decades, widening attention was given to broader development and regional aspects. By the end of the third decade, in the mid-1990s, ADB had become confident in its role as a fully-fledged multilateral development bank.

The scope of ADB’s activities then continued to grow throughout both its fourth and fifth decades from 1997 to 2016.

The priorities set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals became increasingly important after 2001; the international development agenda steadily expanded when discussions about the need for effectiveness became a major focus of attention after the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005.

In the 2000s, the ever-widening view that the international community adopted toward the scope of the global development agenda brought new expectations that ADB would take on a more prominent role in the region.

An eminent persons group appointed in 2007 by then President Haruhiko Kuroda presented a report that set out bold recommendations for changes within the Bank until 2020. The report urged ADB “to change radically, and adopt a new paradigm for development banking.”

The evolution in thinking during this period was reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015.

The SDGs were broader and more extensive than the MDGs. But they placed additional demands on development agencies; the MDGs’ 8 major goals supported by 18 targets were replaced by the 17 SDGs and 169 related targets.

History guides thinking about the future

Looking ahead, ADB’s broad agenda for the next decade will be set out in its forthcoming Strategy 2030. Three pointers to guide thinking about the future can be drawn from the bank’s history.

First, across most countries in Asia and the Pacific, policy makers strongly support the processes of transformation that have taken hold in recent decades. Provided peace and stability can be maintained, rapid economic development and social change is likely to be sustained for decades to come.

  ADB’s history demonstrates flexibility to cope with change

The bank will need to respond to the many challenges that these changes will present.

A second lesson is that the three areas of achievement which successive ADB presidents have pointed to—combining finance with knowledge, promoting good development policies, and expanding regional cooperation—all need to be strengthened.

President Takehiko Nakao underlined the importance of these three areas in his foreword to the ADB history book.

The scope to combine finance with knowledge has been greatly enhanced by the successful merger of the concessional Asian Development Fund with ADB’s ordinary capital resources.

A third and final lesson is a key one for an institution working in a region experiencing accelerated transformation – the importance of flexibility and readiness to cope with change. During its first 50 years of operations, the bank introduced many reforms into all areas of its work.

As ADB looks forward to its work the region in coming decades, it needs to be ready to design new programs, adopt internal reforms, and respond quickly to the rapidly changing expectations of member countries.