George Clooney is trumping Asia’s fight on poverty

By William Pesek, Bloomberg

George Clooney is there. So are Mariah Carey and Robert Downey Jr. There’s even room for Karl Lagerfeld, Andre Agassi and Jeff Immelt. Oddly, Time magazine’s list of the 100 most-influential people excludes Haruhiko Kuroda.

If you don’t know who he is, you are likely to know soon enough about the man who runs the Asian Development Bank.

The point here isn’t to criticize the choices, which probably mirror the mood of many U.S. readers. Time also did a commendable job highlighting many of Asia’s key players, including the Dalai Lama, China’s Hu Jintao, India’s Sonia Gandhi, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim, Australia’s Kevin Rudd and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou.

Yet it’s hard not to lament the lack of focus on a man whose responsibilities trump those of many world leaders.

Kuroda is no glory hound. And the ADB tends to fly below the radar of global markets, attracting far less attention than the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

No organization will play a bigger role in fostering peace and prosperity in a region on which investors and executives are depending for future profits. The widening gap between Asia’s rich and poor has been a major theme in recent years. The worsening global food crisis is an even bigger challenge and makes the ADB’s mission more pivotal than ever.

If there was ever a time for Asia to join hands and cooperate, it’s today. Surging food and oil prices are growing threats to social stability in Asia. Remember, it was the increasing cost of living that ended Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998.

Leaders from New Delhi to Manila need to be prepared for potential unrest sparked by economic upheaval. The risk is growing as the prices of crude oil, rice, corn, wheat and soybeans reach unprecedented levels. When Rajat Nag, managing director at the ADB, says “the era of cheap food is over,’’ he’s really explaining why Asian markets could be in for a bumpy few years. Wider fiscal deficits may become the norm as governments subsidize food and energy costs. That may lead to credit-rating downgrades, higher bond yields and less money for poverty reduction and education. The developing world’s ability to invest in its future is in jeopardy.