Bank staff criticise “thought police”

1 January 2002

The World Bank’s clumsy attempts to censor its own researchers have resulted in stinging criticism by Bank staff.

The latest edition of the World Bank Staff Association newsletter carries two editorials about Bank staff members who were disciplined after publishing separate articles in the Financial Times. Both have now left the Bank. The editorials question whether the Bank’s “public image matters more than germane research findings” and complain about the Bank’s internal governance mechanisms. These are important issues given the Bank’s ever-expanding publication and training agenda.

The Staff Association editorial comments that staff guidelines on getting articles approved before publishing “come perilously close to saying that staff members must not publicly suggest changes in the institution’s practice, past or present. How can the institution share ‘best practice’ that inspires any public confidence, if research staff cannot discuss ‘poor practice’ based on high-quality scholarship?” Senior Bank researcher David Ellerman, also writing in the newsletter, raises concerns that public relations staff come to act as “the thought police to the black sheep in the organization who – within public view – are not ‘on message'”. He urges Bank decision-makers to “begin fostering an atmosphere where the public exercise of critical reason and the open contestation of alternative views is welcomed”.

The two cases discussed in the newsletter are those of William Easterly, who was a senior researcher in the Development Economics Department, and Ashraf Ghani, who was a lead social scientist in the Social Development Department. Their crimes were nearly identical: publishing articles in the Financial Times without adequate clearances from the Bank’s External Relations Department. Ghani contributed an opinion piece in the Financial Times in late September making suggestions about US policy towards his native Afghanistan. When permission to publish was denied he said he would rather resign than be silenced, and was forced to take unpaid leave from the Bank. He is now working on secondment to the UN. Easterly has also taken a new job after being investigated by the Bank’s Ethics Office. He appears bemused by his treatment: his article was clearly marked ‘Personal Opinion’ and merely summarised the findings of a book he wrote for MIT Press with the blessing of his managers.

The former head of the Bank’s Ethics Office, Anita Baker, is candid: “we are not consistent in enforcement regarding publication. The Bank does not have good government, a good self-governing structure”. The Bank has loosely-worded and contradictory guidelines, providing lots of leeway for management clampdowns. Ghani is clear where Bank staff responsibilities lie: “As human beings, apart from our employment at the Bank, we have an individual moral obligation to the poor. It is only through individual moral decisions that Bank staff can transform the mission of the Bank from a mere statement into a collective reality”. Ellerman also comments that if the Bank does not stop adopting particular views as official wisdom there will be a continuing danger that “critical reason gives way to bureaucratic conformity; a community of development researchers gives way to a company of intellectual clerks”. He goes further: “there seems to be little reasoned basis for a development organization to explicitly or implicitly adopt official views on some of the most complex and subtle questions facing humankind”.

World Bank Staff Association Newsletter November/December 2001

Memos by David Ellerman

Recent Bretton Woods Project Briefings

Selected critical comments on the World Bank as Knowledge Bank

Development Through the Looking Glass: the Knowledge Bank in Cyber-space