Knowledge Bank takes on trade, but credibility questioned

5 April 2001

Whilst the World Bank continues to develop its strategy to emphasise ‘global public goods’ and its role as a ‘knowledge bank’, an increasing number of people are questioning its premises. World Bank Chief Economist Nick Stern emphasised the importance of World Bank research when he told the Financial Times (30 January) that: “the World Trade Organisation doesn’t have the research capability the World Bank does and looks to us to push the trade research agenda. I have put a lot of weight behind that. The World Bank is the only organisation with the depth of knowledge at the country level you need to discuss trade issues seriously.”

The credibility of World Bank research was, however, again strongly questioned in a recent article by Peruvian economist Humberto Campondonico. Writing in Reality of Aid he commented that: “World Bank intellectuals have their quota of power as long as their discourse does not interfere with the central interests of its main member, the US, and of financial capital and multinational companies”. A new paper by British academic Robert Wade for the New Left Review makes similar points.

The overall theoretical and political justification for the Bank producing and disseminating ever more research and knowledge can also be faulted. The Bank says these activities are broadly beneficial ‘public goods’, similar to scientific breakthroughs such as vaccines, but “the analogy with scientific research breaks down because social science research is often on contested terrain, across disciplines that do not necessarily share methodological precepts or criteria for empirical verification”, according to a new paper by Ravi Kanbur, Professor of Economics at Cornell University. Kanbur points out that some people “deny entirely the objectivity of social science research, preferring instead to examine the assumptions and motivations that researchers bring to the questions they ask and answers they provide. These concerns are multiplied when that research takes place in an operational organisation whose operations can be controversial, and where it is felt by outsiders that preset positions are being supported through the research process”.

These comments are significant coming from Kanbur, who was lead author of the World Bank’s Poverty World Development Report (WDR), until he resigned last May. Interestingly some senior World Bank researchers now argue privately that the WDRs should be scrapped, as they are almost impossible to manage in the face of expectations that the drafting process should be open to external scrutiny.

A Note on Cross-Border Externalities, International Public Goods and their Implications for Aid Agencies, Ravi Kanbur, March 2001

Economists and Power at the World Bank, Humberto Campondonico, in Reality of Aid