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The monetization of global poverty: the concept of poverty in World Bank history, 1944–90*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 May 2014

Rob Konkel*
706-311 6th Ave N, Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7K 7A9 E-mail:


This article traces the history of the concept of poverty within the institutional framework of the World Bank, from its inception to its establishment of the dollar-a-day global poverty threshold. The Bank's evolving conceptualization of poverty and how it related to the development process affected the policies that were advanced to boost the productivity of underdeveloped countries. Internal and external influences and constraints conditioned the Bank's approach to poverty and its alleviation from the beginning, when poverty was conceived as a political issue beyond the scope of the Bank's mandate. Separating the political implications of poverty alleviation from the Bank's development agenda was tenuous, and by the 1970s a universal, absolute concept of poverty became the focal point of Bank operations. The eventual monetization of global poverty reflected the increasingly technical nature of the Bank's development work and its need for a practical yardstick by which to measure the success of its anti-poverty policies.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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I would like to thank Deborah Oxley and Jim Handy for their support during the early stages of this project. I am grateful to the editors of the Journal of Global History, and three anonymous referees for their very valuable comments. I also appreciate the efforts of April Miller and the rest of the staff at the World Bank Archives.


1 Initially founded as the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), today the World Bank Group consists of five institutions but the term ‘World Bank’ refers only to the IBRD and the International Development Association (IDA). The IBRD makes loans near market rates to governments of middle-income countries and creditworthy low-income countries. The IDA, created in 1960, makes long-term interest-free loans and grants, called ‘credits’, to the governments of the poorest countries, which are otherwise ineligible for IBRD loans. This article uses the terms ‘World Bank’ and ‘Bank’ interchangeably to refer to either the IBRD prior to 1960, or to the IBRD and IDA from 1960 onwards.

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