Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn dies aged 86

James Wolfensohn, who was president of the World Bank for a decade, died on Wednesday aged 86.

A polymath, his period heading the Washington-based institution was among the most significant in its history.

Wolfensohn’s greatest achievement at the Bank, along with former chancellor Gordon Brown, was to persuade donor countries that it was time to give debt laden countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, a break on their official debt burden and a new start.

James Wolfensohn's decade heading the Washington-based World Bank was among the most significant in its history

James Wolfensohn's decade heading the Washington-based World Bank was among the most significant in its history

James Wolfensohn’s decade heading the Washington-based World Bank was among the most significant in its history

Wolfensohn was born in Australia in 1933. Finance ran in the blood. His father Bill, from a devout Jewish family, worked in senior roles at NM Rothschild in London. 

The older Wolfensohn left Britain for Australia in 1928 seeking to make a new life for his family.

His businesses ventures were less than successful and there was a bankruptcy. That, in many ways, was a driving force for James to restore the family reputation.

He did so with some aplomb, earning a law degree from the University of Sydney. He fenced for Australia at the Olympics and went on to Harvard Graduate School of Business. 

He began an investment banking career in Australia and was parachuted in to blue-blooded Schroders in the City, where climbed to chief executive. 

He moved to New York to develop Schroders there before crossing the road to US investment bankers Salomon Brothers.

He became a US citizen and was chosen by President Clinton to be president of the World Bank in 1995.

After a decade at the Bank, President Bush appointed him as his Middle East peace envoy. His wife Elaine died in August. 

  • Alex Brummer assisted Wolfensohn in the writing of his autobiography A Global Life.
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