Aspiration Overload?

Washington — It all seems so easy, headlined in a news release or splashed across a video display. Teach every kid to read. Protect girls and encourage women. Tweak the world’s power consumption, build the right infrastructure, and keep the banks healthy.

With the world’s finance ministers, central bankers and development experts gathered in Washington for the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the mood is certainly aspirational.

Indeed it may be aspiration overload — with so many colliding goals and agendas and communiques it is difficult to separate what’s important but unlikely, what’s just talk and what might actually get traction in the real world.

Because it’s all important.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew calls for universal women’s empowerment. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim calls for universal education. Singapore’s rock star finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam frets about the fate of the next generation. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde just frets.

“What we need is a full-speed global economy — growth that is solid, sustainable, balanced, but also inclusive and very much rooted in green developments,” she said at an opening news conference on a day when her voice competed with dozens of others at seminars and panels on topics as diverse as the Arab Spring and the future of the IMF. It’s Davos comes to D.C. — academics and investors like Nouriel Roubini holding forth on world megatrends while Bloomberg television and the BBC stage live coverage and marquee interviews.

It’s as if the actual governance of the two institutions — the purpose of the whole affair — has become an afterthought.

“There is a point of diminishing returns,” to all the side events that have grown up around the biannual meetings, as different divisions within the two organizations, outside civil society groups and others compete for attention, said Merrel Tuck-Primdahl, a World Bank spokeswoman. “We are competing with ourselves,” she said.

Thursday afternoon the World Bank alone held major events on the importance of protecting women’s economic rights, meeting universal education goals, and incorporating the value of ecosystems into economic analysis. The IMF had its own agenda underway as well.

It’s a huge week also for the think tanks — with the Brookings Institution, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Bertelsmann Foundation and others battling for attention, and so many central bank governors and finance ministers lined up to speak they all sort of cancel each other out.

Why give Mark Carney, of Britain by way of Canada, any more credence than Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi, late of the European Central Bank but now a free agent? Is that Stan Fischer at the coffee stand? Which of a half-dozen possible governments is he working for now?

Work does get done. Communiques will be issued by the World Bank and the IMF, and other organizations such as the Group of 20 major economic powers and the G24 committee of developing nations. They may even be of substance. For example, Kim, the former Dartmouth College president, is expecting an endorsement of his broad strategic goals for the bank; the G24 endorsed a plan by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the so-called BRICS nations — to set up their own development bank as a complement-competitor to the World Bank.

But the real value may be at a quieter level beyond all the panel discussions and photo ops.

Outside the public eye, people like Kim, Lagarde and Lew are holding dozens of one-on-one meetings — “speed dating” is how former Treasury official Scott Morris, now an analyst at the Center for Global Development, refers to it. It’s in those sessions that Egypt tries to make progress on a hoped-for IMF loan, or Indonesian minister Mari Pangestu lobbies to become director general of the World Trade Organization, or U.S. officials get private estimates of China’s shale gas reserves.

That is the grunt work of economic diplomacy that won’t be broadcast on the jumbotron that the World Bank has erected outside its headquarters.

That’s reserved for advice on global warming.