Bank prepares major report for sustainability summit

17 January 2002

A World Bank team is currently preparing the next World Development Report which will be launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development this September. However despite the wide interest in the report’s subject matter and the sensitive timing of its release, the Bank has produced no clear plan for outsiders to be involved in the drafting process.

The overall aim of the report is to examine how “poverty and marginality are associated with the fragility of ecosystems”. Titled Sustainable Development with a Dynamic Economy, the report will try to assess the sustainability of different development paths over the next twenty to fifty years. Although the report team consists of six Bank economists it recognises the need to move beyond traditional analysis of economic output and consumption. A leaked September 2001 outline also says it aims to examine the relationship between economic growth, natural resources, quality of life and inequality, including global inequality. Rather than just pointing out theoretically optimal policies, it will discuss the “social and political context” which prevents or enables such policies to be pursued.

Many of these indications are welcome. However without adequate external scrutiny, some of the stronger arguments are likely to be diluted by the time that it is finally published and promoted. In particular, assertions such as sustainable development “will require changes in production and consumption patterns in developed countries in order to avoid risks of irreversible environmental degradation or social disintegration” will be vulnerable to attacks from major Bank shareholder countries. During the drafting of the Poverty World Development Report, powerful governments and Bank factions applied such strong pressure to the report’s lead author that he was forced to resign.

The lead author of this report, Zmarak Shalizi, intends to include a final chapter setting out “open questions which could not be resolved”. This section, detailing the most ‘controversial’ aspects of issues where further dialogue will be necessary, would be an important innovation for the Bank, which generally believes that any issue can be resolved if you throw enough statistics and references at it. Again, however, it is unclear how to determine which issues remain controversial without a vigorous and wide debate.

The WDR team’s September outline recognises that “credibility is enhanced by anchoring policymaking in transparency and open popular discourse” and that “civil society can be instrumental in providing the necessary pressure for government and its institutions to evolve positively”. However, the same document recommended only allowing very limited and rapid external review on sections of this report. Shalizi argues that he has been given less time than previous WDR teams and says he will post some or all of the draft report to the Bank’s website in mid-March.

For such a major report from a public institution which will be widely disseminated at a vital policy summit meeting, the Bank should be doing more. Rather than batten down the hatches after the resignations of his predecessor Joe Stiglitz and the fiasco of the Poverty WDR, the Bank’s Chief Economist Nick Stern should realise that the only way to re-establish the WDR‘s credibility is to open up the process of report writing. The Bretton Woods Project will continue to press for a full draft of this year’s report to be made available for consideration in an electronic conference. The Project is also discussing plans for producing a commentary on the report’s content and process to coincide with its release.

Zmarak Shalizi, WDR lead author:

Nick Stern, Chief Economist:

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WDR 2002 links:

World Bank official site | Bretton Woods Project WDRs page

Other World Summit sites

Official UN site | Stakeholder Forum | Heinrich Boell Foundation |