WDR resignation embarrasses Bank

11 August 2000

In late May Ravi Kanbur resigned from his position as World Development Report lead author following attempts by Bank and government officials to make him change his text. When this story broke in mid-June, the ensuing controversy opened up important debates about policy priorities and about the World Bank’s role in producing research.

The World Development Report is the Bank’s leading annual publication, with a major influence on development thinking and operations worldwide. In recent years the Bank has gradually opened up the process of producing the reports, encouraging NGOs and researchers to submit evidence and comments during drafting. For this year’s major decadal report on poverty the Bank allocated significant extra time and resources for such exercises and hired former Bank official, now Cornell University Professor, Ravi Kanbur to lead the team.

Kanbur impressed many with the energy and enthusiasm he brought to the challenge of listening to diverse evidence and opinions, and by publishing the report’s first draft on the web.

Senior Bank and shareholder government officials, however, became concerned about the report’s messages on key policies and tried to force Kanbur to make changes in order and content. Kanbur had, however, made quite clear – for example by arranging extra trips to meet African and Indian NGOs – that he was committed to garnering and including a range of views. He wrote to the Bretton Woods Project soon after he took the job clarifying that “I would not submit to any substantive editing I did not agree with”. Bridging the gap between those who approved of much of his first draft while calling for certain aspects to be taken further, and those who wanted to reorder and dilute it was always hard. It became impossible once pressure, rather than reasoned argument, was brought to bear.

Those in the Bank and donor governments who wanted to tone down the report were concerned about the order of the WDR‘s main “pillars”, in particular the relative importance of the sections on opportunity (the role of markets and economic growth) and empowerment (responsiveness of state institutions to citizens, and the role of organisations of the poor).

The January draft suggested that developing countries need to approach market liberalisation cautiously, taking active measures to address institutional change, social protection and inequality. Many commentators had welcomed this more balanced approach but argued that, having acknowledged the importance of political factors, the report needed to do more to identify the major local, national and global obstacles to pro-poor actions. Ironically the WDR editing process has now neatly revealed why it is so hard for poorer people to have their voices heard in global institutions.

Joe Ritzen, Bank Vice President in charge of the report pledged “the World Bank is committed to both open debate and an internal process that maintains the integrity of the WDR, in which the final product reflects the best evidence and judgement of the staff, as well as the wide range of external commentary. The report will in the end be a product of the World Bank.”

Many of those involved in the WDR drafting process are likely to produce commentaries on the final text when it is published in early September. The open initial drafting process followed by the public controversy during June and July may have helped ensure that the final draft contains significant advances from orthodox Bank approaches. But questions remain about whose voices count in such reports and what are the limits to World Bank openness.

For future WDRs, including the 2002 report on sustainable development, the Bank will again have to clarify their purpose and process. Two years ago Bank President James Wolfensohn stated in a letter to the Bretton Woods Project that “I view WDRs as being one of the Bank’s critical instruments for dialogue with the development community at large. I have also emphasized that we should not just be reciting generic answers but raising fundamental questions to which there are no easy answers”. Neither aim is at present being realised.