The power of World Bank knowledge

25 May 2000 | Briefing

By Michael Goldman *

For the enormous power and global reach the World Bank has today, relatively little formal debate exists on one critical aspect of its practices – the production of knowledge. A top scholar on East Asian economies, Alice Amsden, has engaged the Bank in a constructive critique on the quality of its research science, and says, in utter exhaustion, its “like a small firm confronting a multinational enterprise, or a guerrilla army engaging a nuclear power.”

What makes the World Bank’s “knowledge” so powerful? In a policy world obsessed with the belief that only “global expertise” is valuable, the Bank has no real rival. The regional development banks and UN agencies fall over themselves to cooperate with the Bank, anxious to get a piece of the action from the large loans that may follow. Political scientist Robert Wade, a veteran of Bank research, believes that the Bank’s legitimacy in the global marketplace of ideas and commerce depends upon the authority of its research and policies. “Like the Vatican, and for similar reasons, it cannot afford to admit fallibility.” It cannot admit its research weaknesses because financial markets demand the illusion of certainty, an illusion that severely constrains a type of knowledge production that could be responsible, reflexive, and situated. That is, the World Bank staff, starched in Wall Street’s dress shirts and cufflinks, constructs their values and world views in terms of a “self-reinforcing congruence” with “the values of the owners and managers of financial capital,” the Bank’s ultimate provider.

Nonetheless, it remains a Sisyphean feat to maintain investors’ confidence in light of circumspect and contradictory activities occurring in the real world – such as the Bank’s ecologically disastrous dam projects and socially disastrous structural adjustment policies. These negative effects have been easily documented by activists-scientists, and they are extremely difficult for the Bank to conceal to investors and the public. To succeed, the World Bank must strictly monitor scientific norms inside and outside the Bank. Inside the Bank, staff behavior is strictly monitored: How else could it be that a nine-thousand-person organization, producing annually thousands of public and internal documents, working in 170-plus “developing” countries, can create a singular analysis of the world? Even the Catholic Church produces a greater cacophony of voices and opinions.

Outside the Bank, surveillance and consensus are not so easy to maintain. But with the flow of large capital loans from the Bank to borrowing countries comes the flow of ideas and the institutional support to “localize” new neoliberal ideas, techniques, disciplines, and behaviors. That is, as all Bank loans now have stringent pre-conditions for borrowing countries, the world of knowledge producers is being “structurally adjusted” to work more closely with the World Bank. In this way, ideas of the environment, sustainability, markets, poverty, and personal conduct, are being studied, assessed, classified, and quantified in terms that reflect the transnationalized ideology of neoliberalism. It is clear that Bank and IMF staff view the world in this reductive way, but who else, and why?

One only has to look at the latest reports and projects of international conservation groups working with the Bank to see how the natural and biological sciences are being radically reframed in terms of neoliberal economics. Note how they represent mega-fauna species as well as human populations in terms of their “value” to the global economy, and much less so for non-economic concerns. They frame environmental crises in terms of low GDPs and the importance of market integration, analytical framings that are new to the science of zoology and ichthyology. Many environment and development NGOs readily admit that to continue to raise their funds and work in ecologically fragile parts of the world, they must speak the language of the neoliberal World Bank.

Similarly, as the Bank’s structural adjustment policies have drastically slashed state budgets, government professionals and professors are now lining up to become Bank consultants, attending training seminars in which they are “re-tooled” in the new science of project loans and impact assessments, and then hired as consultants to “cultivate champions” for new loans at home. They bring in more Bank loans as well as disseminate, or transnationalize, the Bank’s worldviews and knowledge production practices.

Of course, most people don’t take this loan-driven knowledge production sitting down. At the top of the hierarchy, we see anger and frustration at the intellectual straitjackets one must wear around the World Bank. Cornell University economist Ravi Kanbur resigned as editor of the Bank’s next World Development Report because, according to press accounts, U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers insisted on changing the report’s wording on the ambiguous character of “globalization,” since Summers felt the report’s depiction was too “negative.” Two independent panel reports hired by World Bank president Wolfensohn to evaluate the Bank’s dam building on Mapuche Indian land in Chile were suppressed because Wolfensohn was uncomfortable with their findings. University of Arizona anthropology professor, Ted Downing, was threatened with a law suit because he wanted to translate his panel’s report so the Mapuche people could read it. If this is way the Bank treats esteemed and relatively independent scholars, one can only imagine how it treats the average consultant and Bank employee who do most of the data collection and analysis, on which the development industry bases its interventions and investments.

The problem is not that “bad” science has become dominant, but that the Bank’s data and reports, policies and discursive strategies become dominant the world over and yet detached from the production process. Who wrote the report? Who collected the data? Based on what scientific methodologies and set of assumptions? No one knows, yet the results fill the daily newspapers and fall into the hands of policymakers; they are found on the desks of editors and reporters, and in our universities and research institutes. Their logic has become naturalized and institutionalized on the policy level in Burkina Faso and in the classrooms of Oxford University. By contrast, the petty crimes and misdemeanors of the knowledge production process – censorship, suppression, firings, and narrow ideological framing – do not receive the same captive attention. Hence, we need to pause and reflect upon the implications of a Global Gateway web network in which the flow of information will only become more rapid, more profitable, less transparent, and less democratic. Fortunately, social movement activists have recognized that the Bank’s Achilles’ heel is its knowledge production process. Challenging the veracity of the Bank’s claims about sustainability and economic growth, development and underdevelopment, may perhaps become the most successful political strategy to weaken the Bank yet.

* Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Editor of Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons (Rutgers University Press [New Jersey] and Pluto Press [London]), and a work-in-progress, ‘Greening’ the Globe: The New Politics and Science of the World Bank