Knowledge Bank evaluation criticises “reluctance to consider alternatives”

28 January 2004

The World Bank will create a “knowledge management system which will aim at improving quality on the ground through being demand-driven, accessible, timely, authoritative, efficient, inclusive, user-friendly, sustainable, consistent, scaleable, flexible, and iterative”
The Strategic Compact, World Bank, 1997

“The majority of respondents complained that the Bank is too narrowly focused in the analyses and ‘best practices’ that it presents, with little or no attention to alternative perspectives. Many respondents expressed frustration about the Bank’s insistence that its models and solutions represent the only viable approach to solving economic and social problems in their country.”
Sharing Knowledge Innovations and Remaining Challenges, OED, 2003, p.74

The majority of respondents complained that the Bank is too narrowly focused in the analyses and 'best practices' that it presents, with little or no attention to alternative perspectives.

An official review has echoed many external criticisms of the World Bank’s knowledge roles, but has buried some of the most important feedback from officials and researchers in the South. A recent study by the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department (OED) found significant problems with the Bank’s self-appointed role as guardian and dissseminator of the world’s development knowledge, but produced only extremely bureaucratic conclusions which do not match the degree or nature of the concerns expressed by outside critics.

The World Bank’s importance in framing global development debates, publishing statistics and conducting in-country policy analysis is well-known. The views of a Brazilian government official interviewed by the Bank’s evaluators are revealing. “The Bank is the institution which we address when we need some kind of information or advice. Don’t underestimate this fact. If you really need an expert on a certain issue related to development, the WB is where you go”.

In 1996 the World Bank embarked on a “new vision – to become a global catalyst for creating, sharing, and applying the cutting-edge knowledge necessary for poverty reduction and economic development”. To achieve this it invested in knowledge networks and information technology to enable better internal and external knowledge sharing and launched several major global initiatives.

  • Between 1997 and 2002, 283 million were spent on creating the Knowledge Bank
  • The Bank has 50 e-mail newsletters with 90,000 subscribers
  • The Bank’s Web sites reach 700,000 users a month
  • 10-20 percent are from developing countries, while 25 percent are in the United States
  • Only 20 per cent of Country Assistance Strategies treat the transfer of knowledge as a strategic objective. These are mainly middle-income countries.

The OED review found that “the Bank has substantially upgraded its information management system, initiated a wide variety of new activities for the aggregation and sharing of knowledge, and fostered a more open, knowledge-sharing culture within its staff. These steps have provided staff, clients, and partners faster and easier access to Bank and other development knowledge”. But it found that “the Bank’s new activities have not been well integrated into core lending and nonlending processes” – with inadequate staff incentives and poor links to core Bank processes. And the Bank’s knowledge initiatives “have not met four major challenges”:

  • ensuring their continued utility in a rapidly changing technological and development environment;
  • achieving financial sustainability;
  • consolidating governance and oversight arrangements; and
  • limiting the Bank’s role as each program matures.

The OED report combines desk reviews of the Bank’s knowledge outputs with a five-country survey of some 120 people from government, NGOs, the media, and the private sector. The tension between a global, bird’s eye view and local, grounded ones is clearly fundamental to analysis of development knowledge activities. The OED report fails to address this tension and the key questions of whose knowledge counts, how power relates to knowledge and whether the Bank can be trusted as a neutral knowledge vehicle.

Almost amusingly the OED review records that: “development experts share the view that the technical quality of Bank knowledge is high. But both clients and experts distinguish between the unquestioned technical soundness of the Bank’s shared knowledge and its more limited qualities of objectivity and applicability to country circumstances.” It continues that a substantial number of respondents criticized the Bank’s poor record of collaboration, along with its condescension toward their own knowledge and experience.

The evaluation notes what would appear to be a major problem: “the majority of respondents said the Bank presents ‘ready-made’ solutions that are not adapted to individual country circumstances. They argue that the Bank is reluctant to consider alternatives to the models and solutions that it outlines in policy advice and documentation”. The proposals noted by the OED for “increased use of local expertise and more local involvement in generating knowledge” do not deal with the issues of the World Bank being able to cast what Mohamed Suleiman of the Institute for African Alternatives once called “a grey could of conformity” over institutions it contracts to do research.

On the relationship between the Bank’s knowledge and lending, there were some very interesting statements by government respondents from Brazil and Poland. The former stated: “what happens is that these ‘best practices’ come to us as norms; they become guidelines. They could bring a very positive effect, but also a negative one. If I’m in Brazil, living with Brazilian reality, implementing projects, and I observe that there’s not a correct vision of the situation, then I begin to question this best practice. Is it really true that this ‘best practice’ is the exact, correct, and real vision?” The Polish representative said (the Bank’s comparative recommendations) should come to us as advice, rather than as compulsion. A journalist from Senegal added that “the Bank often ignores potentially useful solutions from other parts of the world which were not sponsored or supported by the Bank (for example, rural electrification in Morocco).”

The OED also recorded many complaints about how the Bank makes its information available: particularly its reliance on the internet and on English. The OED notes that “for a majority of respondents, this insistence that the Bank’s way is the only way underlies most reports, strategic models, and policy analyses” but fails to analyse this properly, almost certainly because the OED is itself a part of the Bank’s global knowledge bureaucracy. This is revealed more strongly by the OED’s recommendations which consist entirely of navel-gazing procedural changes by Bank management such as establishing performance indicators for staff.

A more critical analysis of the Knowledge Bank is provided by a recent book, Global Institutions and Development: Framing the World. Co-editors Morten Boas and Desmond McNeill argue that in multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and IMF “ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom become distorted as a result of a series of related pressures: depoliticization and ‘economization’ “.