IFI governance


The World Bank’s knowledge roles: dominating development debates

28 May 2004 | At Issue

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Since 1996 the World Bank’s President has emphasised his institution’s roles as a “knowledge bank”. Producing and deploying knowledge is clearly important. But just as one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, what some see as knowledge is viewed by others as propaganda for a particular world view.

There is a strong tension between the World Bank’s messages that it is keen to move away from blueprint approaches, and its many documents, speeches and indicators which claim to set out and measure “the right policies”. As a huge bureaucracy dominated by rich countries, it struggles to be trusted as a neutral judge of development policies.

"thought police" operate in the institution

A recent assessment of the Bank’s knowledge strategy found many problems with its approach and impact. The evaluation report demonstrated some of the black arts of bureaucratic knowledge filtering, burying some of the most important critical evidence in Annex G at the end of the document. The officials managing the Development Gateway – a controversial World Bank internet initiative – have also demonstrated such skills, burying the documentation which outlined its original aims and objectives. And authors of successive World Development Reports (WDRs) – the Bank’s annual flagship publication – have complained that they cannot be specific about the negative activities of any government because a Bank board member may call for it to be removed. Senior Bank research staff have complained that “thought police” operate in the institution, setting limits on what is researched and disseminated.

The Knowledge Bank

The Knowledge Bank consists of:

  • knowledge-sharing among Bank staff;
  • regional and country external knowledge sharing;
  • global knowledge initiatives.

The Bank states that between 1997 and 2002 $283 million was spent on reorganising the Bank to be a knowledge institution. Far more was spent on actual activities such as training and reports. The Bank’s research is widely disseminated and highly respected among many important audiences. A Swedish government study in 2000 concluded that “the World Bank continues to be dominant as the main purveyor of development ideas”.

These findings indicate that the Bank’s analytical approaches influence policy-making across the world even if the Bank is not involved directly. The International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development stated: “the World Bank has enormous influence over the shape and pace of Indonesia’s policies and reform in its own right, but it also wields great influence through its production of the economic analysis that serves as the information base on which other creditors and donors rely to make decisions”.

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 disseminator of the world’s development knowledge. The study combines desk reviews of the Bank’s knowledge outputs with a five-country survey of 120 people from government, NGOs, the media, and the private sector.

The evaluation notes: “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 alternative models and solutions”. A government representative from Brazil stated: “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 and I observe that there’s not a correct vision of the situation, then I begin to question this best practice”.

The OED notes that “for a majority of respondents, this insistence that the Bank’s way is the only way underlies most [Bank] reports, strategic models, and policy analyses”. But the evaluators fail to analyse this properly, almost certainly because the OED is itself a part of the Bank’s global knowledge bureaucracy.

Structural difficulties

Comments from Bank staff in the World Bank staff association newsletter two years ago revealed severe dissatisfaction with how the Bank treated its own researchers. One questioned whether the Bank’s “public image matters more than germane research findings”, pointing out that staff guidelines on getting press articles approved before publishing “come perilously close to saying that staff members must not publicly suggest changes in the institution’s practice”. Senior Bank researcher David Ellerman complained of “bureaucratic conformity”, with public relations staff acting as “thought police to the black sheep in the organization who are not ‘on message'”.

Researchers who might want to publish radical views (such as Branko Milanovic on trade and globalisation) have their draft publications returned for rewriting. They face a choice either to learn to draft reports which do not deviate too far from the party line, or to depart early, as have Ravi Kanbur, Joseph Stiglitz and William Easterly for example, all very senior Bank researchers. “Just as operations people are rewarded for giving out loans, Bank researchers are rewarded for bolstering the ‘intellectual’ basis for further Bank lending” concludes Robin Broad, a professor at American University, in a paper delivered this March at the International Studies Association conference, after numerous interviews with current and former World Bank research staff.

There have been some scathing external analyses of the Knowledge Bank. Morten Boas and Desmond McNeill argue that in the Bank and IMF “ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom become distorted as a result of depoliticization and ‘economization'”. Helge Ole Bergesen and Leiv Lunde concluded “the Bank’s two ambitions – to be a premier development institution helping to forge common agendas on major issues and a large-scale funder of projects are not compatible [as] they require qualitatively different governing structures, the one emphasizing equal participation and open, time-consuming processes, the other requiring hierarchical order and effective decision-making.”

It is often remarked that the Bank tends to hire researchers with doctorates in economics from a narrow range of US and UK universities. But what is the role of other non-economics researchers in the Bank, of whom there are many? Michael Horowitz, Professor of Anthropology at Birhampton University, argues that social scientists are marginalised in the Bank, working on fringe issues rather than “the structure of power and wealth which controls access to resources”.

Conflicts of interest: in-country research

In every country where it lends the Bank conducts or commissions a large range of studies on current issues. These range from public spending to tariff reduction, from primary schooling to natural resource protection. The studies make recommendations which are often taken very seriously by borrower government officials negotiating funding with the Bank and other aid agencies. Since the introduction of the PRSP process – which was supposed to devolve policy-making to developing countries – the Bank is paradoxically increasing its output of such studies, meaning that countries are flooded with expatriate consultants telling them how to make policy.

Civil society groups and some officials have, however, demanded that the Bank carry out some of this research in a new way. The Bank, under pressure from NGOs and some governments, has agreed to help produce Poverty and Social Impact Analysis (PSIA). This claims to make available further analysis of the likely impact of proposed policies to help foster an informed national debate. Around 70 PSIA studies are said to be underway at present.

Ministers in the HIPC Finance Ministers Network (which brings together ministers from 33 indebted countries) agree with the intentions of PSIA but urged the World Bank and IMF to “equip countries with the tools to conduct their own PSIAs rather than depending on outside assistance. These tools should have input from the Bretton Woods Institutions and donors, but be administered and disseminated by independent capacity-building sources, to avoid conflict of interest for partners in the negotiation process”.

Pride and prejudice: the Gateway

The World Bank established the Development Gateway, one of several global knowledge-sharing initiatives in 2000. This claimed to be a means to use the Internet as “a tool to address development issues and increase the effectiveness of development assistance”, and to be a partnership with civil society groups. But from the beginning the Bretton Woods Project and others argued that it demonstrated the Bank’s inability to listen to critical views, and failure to understand that people have fundamentally different approaches to development questions.

A forthcoming study commissioned by Bretton Woods Project finds that the Gateway remains closely linked to the World Bank at both operational and strategic levels, that the information is predominantly from northern sources, that its operations are not transparent or accountable to civil society, and that there is no clear identification of who the beneficiaries are and how they might benefit. The information on the Gateway’s topic and country pages is poorly organised, narrow in its origin and presentation (see table) and has a strong bias towards technological topics at the expense of social and political ones. Its cost-effectiveness is very poor compared with other Internet portals.

Privatisation (as %) Trade (as %)
Resources in English 100 92
Number of user comments 7 6
WB published material 41 4
Southern material 13 18

Analysis of 100 most recent entries to Development Gateway topic sections, March 2004. (Jha, Seymour and Simms for Bretton Woods Project, 2004)

Diverse critical voices

It is by no means just radical civil society voices who urge the Bank to think again on its knowledge roles. The former director of the Bank’s research department, Nancy Birdsall, urged an end to “the analytic near-monopoly of the World Bank on the details of pension reform, privatisation, the ideal bank deposit insurance system, and so many of the other issues of economic and social reform.” Robert Wade, Professor of Political Economy at the London School of Economics, asks “whether the world is served by having as the principle provider of development statistics an organisation exposed to arm-twisting by its member states and needing to defend itself against constant criticism. We would not want Philip Morris research labs to be the only source of data on the effects of smoking even if the research met professional standards.”

A further problem is that the Bank has positioned itself as a major funder and trainer of other research organisations. In a consultation meeting on a World Development Report Mohamed Suleiman, director of the Institute for African Alternatives, spoke alarmingly of the Bank’s ability to “spread a grey cloud of conformity” over the outputs of many organisations which either receive funding from the Bank or may want to in future. The African Economic Research Consortium, for example, which has just been awarded the contract to provide advice to African Executive Directors to the Bank and Fund, has received significant Bank support. The Bank’s roles in this area are significantly reinforced by bilateral donors which provide additional funding to the Bank to encourage it to take an interest in policy issues they see as important. The Danish government, for example, promoted the concept of social capital in this way. But a flurry of Bank activity on this issue in the late 1990s has left little more trace than an outdated web database.

Internal reviews are clearly not going to reign in the Bank’s knowledge activities which provide it so much income, prestige and intellectual justification for its policies. This means the challenge will have to come from outside. A growing number of activists are realising the importance of the Bank’s ‘soft power’ and are challenging it at country and global levels.

[A previous version of this ‘at issue’ incorrectly stated that Ajay Chhibber, Director of the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department was lead author of the WDR 1998/9 on knowledge. We apologise for this error.]

More on the knowledge bank

Also available as a fully-formatted PDF file.