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Tony Blair's Excellent Balkans Adventure

Is there a way to solve a range of problems in the world's poorest countries -- from improving education in classrooms to increasing child vaccination rates to building bridges -- in one easy step? The World Bank thinks it's found the solution: Hire a former British prime minister to fly in on his $45 million private jet and have him offer some advice on what works and what doesn't.

Earlier this month, Blair arrived in Albania, one of the first countries set to benefit from his work for the Bank. In a press statement, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said that Blair had come to Albania to help set up a "delivery unit" aimed at improving the government's ability to provide public services. To those who haven't been following the latest trends in international development, it's all part and parcel of "deliverology," an approach to governance reform invented by former Tony Blair staffer Sir Michael Barber. Barber pioneered the practice during Blair's second term of office, when he was appointed head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit with a brief to drive change in public services and achieve improvements in health, education, and crime reduction. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is such a fan of Barber's ideas that he's said to keep a copy of his book, Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders, on hand in his office.

According to World Bank economists, "deliverology" is based on the notion that traditional public sector institutions aren't predisposed to achieving results because their goals are muddled. Deliverologists focus on establishing specific targets for service delivery, monitor institutional performance in real time, and make possible corrections mid-course.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has set some very specific and ambitious goals for his institution. He aims to reduce extreme poverty to 3 percent by 2030 and to promote income growth among the bottom 40 percent of the world's population. To reach these goals Kim is planning to launch Barber's ideas on a global scale. Blair is supposed to stand at the forefront of the effort.

On Oct. 3, Blair and Yong Kim met with the leaders of Albania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Malawi, and Senegal on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative. The leaders of this Global Network of Delivery Leaders, as the Bank has rather ambitiously dubbed it, are expected to encourage other countries to join, in the hope that one day the network will become genuinely "global."

The six countries whose leaders met in New York would seem to have little in common -- aside from their apparent eagerness to hire an army of advisers from Blair's booming global consultancy business. (Malawi, for one, already has a delivery unit in place run by former Blair staffers.)

After Blair left office in 2007, his new consultancy, Government Advisory Practice (GAP), secured lucrative deals with governments in Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Brazil, and Colombia. GAP's contract in oil-rich Kazakhstan alone is said to be worth as much as $25.4 million, while the consultancy's contract with Sao Paulo state, the economic powerhouse of Brazil's economy, is said to be worth almost $6.3 million a year. Blair also has a commercial consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, as well as jobs advising J.P. Morgan and Zurich Financial Services, the Swiss insurance group. He has also funded two international charities: the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Although the World Bank maintains that details for the Network of Global Delivery Leaders are still being worked out and that there is no funding decision yet, Blair is already being presented as an adviser to some of the countries that have signed on.

Blair's role is likely to excite some controversy in Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe. That's probably why Rama felt compelled to stress that Blair "is at our service personally but totally voluntarily." When a TV interviewer asked who was footing the bill for his hotel room and private jet, however, Blair admitted that his staff would be paid through money raised by international donors.

A Blair spokesperson, Cirian Ward, says that the former prime minister's services to the government will come at no cost to the Albanian taxpayer: "As Mr. Blair has previously said, were Mr. Rama to become PM he would be happy to help, as both Albania and the region mean a huge amount to him, the conflict in Kosovo having been an important period in his premiership."

Although it's still unclear who's going to foot the bill for Blair's advisory role, at least one watchdog group has queried his role. Peter Chowla, coordinator of the Bretton Woods Project, a self-appointed watchdog group, sums up Blair's planned activities in the Balkans as "conflicts of interest galore." According to Chowla, Sir Michael Barber also works for an education consulting company owned by the Pearson Group. If Pearson is awarded a contract that would potentially create yet another conflict of interest.

Asked about the possible conflict of interests regarding Barber's role and Blair's role as an adviser, a World Bank spokesman, David Theis, said that "there has been no contractual arrangement with Mr. Blair's office," while adding that "Michael Barber was not included in any of these discussions."

Blair's Albanian sally comes amid increasing controversy over his consulting efforts elsewhere in the world. The last time Blair visited Malawi in July 2012, a bounty was placed on his head by British journalist George Monbiot for "crimes against peace," charging Blair for starting the war in Iraq. Monbiot offered anyone attempting to arrest the former British prime minister was offered the modest sum of $2,100. In September, Blair was greeted by protests in Bangkok (pictured above) over claims -- subsequently denied but not refuted -- that the Thai government was paying him $630,000 to attend a conference on reconciliation.

I'm not sure if the World Bank is tracking these reactions in real time. But you have to wonder whether Tony Blair is really going to deliver the benefits they expect.

Besar Likmeta is an editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, based in Tirana, Albania and a winner of the 2009 CEI-SEEMO Award for Investigative Journalism.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

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