Over the past sixty years, the World Bank has been at the forefront of economic analysis through the projects and programs it has designed and financed in the developing world. The robust economic analysis that was carried out for many early infrastructure and later social sector projects helped client countries to learn the key cost and benefit parameters that underlay these projects. When I was at university, cost benefit analysis (CBA) publications of World Bank were used to illustrate how to carry out economic analysis of projects, including what factors to consider, the limitations of standard methods, the nuances which need to be considered, and the sensitivity analysis that needed to be carried out to ensure that the analysis is technically robust.
A large part of the task of economic development in the world can be achieved by carrying existing knowledge from where it is available to where it is not. The creation of new knowledge is of course important, but when one looks around at the large areas of unwarranted darkness in the world, it becomes evident that there is a lot to be gained simply by knowledge arbitrage. But the reason why this does not happen, large knowledge gaps persist, and we fail to deliver even when we have the knowhow is that knowledge arbitrage is not as easy as it may appear at first sight.
We have the knowledge needed to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. Years of research gave us the vaccine, first in injectable form and later as oral medicine. By 1962 this was licensed. Yet even now well over a thousand children contract polio each year. This is the reason why we are shocked when we get news of nurses and doctors participating in vaccination campaigns being killed. The most recent was the case of nine women killed in Nigeria by gunmen suspected to be part of a radical Islamist sect. Similar incidents have occurred in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And there is no getting away from the fact that, in many places, terrorists succeed in carrying out these attacks because of pre-existing local suspicion about the polio vaccine.
Unsurprisingly, with the recent arrival of a new president fresh from the groves of academia, the halls and meeting rooms of the World Bank are buzzing once again with talk of the “Knowledge Bank” or KB for short. But what exactly is a “knowledge bank”?
To my mind the paper that pins the idea down best is “Positioning the World Bank” by Chris Gilbert, Andrew Powell and David Vines in the Economic Journal in 1999.
Knowledge as a public good
Gilbert & Co argue that knowledge about best-practice development is a global public good – the entire world stands to benefit from it, even though some may benefit from it more than others. Given the public good character of global knowledge on development, too little of it would appear if production were left to the free market.
Last year I wrote a couple of posts on coping with information overload using an iPad, one in July and the other in December. The iPad world continues to develop apace, so here's a quick update, this one - as requested - complete with links to the apps.
International development apps
In my last post, I covered three World Bank apps: InfoFinder, which allows you to search in the Bank's documents and reports database, DataFinder which gets you into the Bank's data vaults, and WB Finances which shows you what the Bank is doing in its operational work. The Bank's latest iPad app is the 2012 World Development Report which contains the text of the report plus various additional features. While not an iPad app, the Bank's Open Knowledge Repository is quite iPad-friendly and a great way to search for and access World Bank publications.
The quality of development projects depends in part on how well grounded project preparation is in knowledge about what works and what does not. Development practitioners need to be well informed if their projects are to have impact.
The World Bank’s in-house research department—the Development Research Group (DECRG)—is the main unit aiming to supply relevant research findings to Bank operations, as well as to external clients. It is not a large department, accounting for about 1% of the Bank’s administrative budget. But it produces the majority of the Bank’s research, and has a high profile internationally. Indeed, it is often ranked ahead of almost all universities and think tanks in development economics, measured by the quantity of research outputs, downloads and citations to research findings. For example, the highly-regarded and much-watched ranking done by the IDEAS project currently puts DECRG ahead of all but one university.
Small but sometimes radical new steps toward greener energy and green growth are happening on our stressed planet, but we don’t hear enough about them, nor do we sufficiently explore and share policy lessons.
Examples include ‘smart grid’ R&D activities that deploy sensors to gather data on incoming electricity from wind, solar and other renewables with varying power outputs, better management of outages, factoring in the needs of electric vehicles, and installing more energy-efficient power meter usage in homes and offices. At the other end of the spectrum, Husk Power Systems, a company operating in Bihar, India has devised a novel single fuel gasifier for rural electrification based on discarded rice husks – one of India’s most common waste products. Thanks to the risk husks, 60 mini-power plants have now been installed. They power about 25,000 households in more than 250 villages in rural India.
In July I wrote a post on this blog about coping with information overload using an iPad. Rather to my surprise, a few people actually read it. Four months on I thought I'd share with you some new apps and new uses of old apps. It turns out that four months is a long time in the iPad world right now.
World Bank apps, and apps for World Bankers
Three sets of iPad apps allow you to track what the World Bank is up to. InfoFinder gives you a nice way to search among 120,000 or so documents in the Bank's documents and reports database. DataFinder gets you into the Bank's data vaults and allows you to produce some very pretty charts. There are specialized versions of DataFinder on Africa, Climate Change, and Education. Finally, WB Finances shows you what the Bank is doing in its operational work. You can search for projects via a Google map or via a country listing. This beautifully designed app tells you what each project is about, how much is being lent, and how much has been disbursed. These apps reflect not just the Bank's new openness but also its tech savviness.
Here’s some reading material for Thanksgiving in the event you get some time to yourself. The list below of the Bank’s most-read 100 blog posts in 2011 contains some real gems.
Before you start reading, you might be curious how the Bank’s 26 English-language blogs compare to one another in terms of the number of blog posts they have in the top-50, top-100, and top-200. In Table 1 below, I’ve been a bit strict: I haven’t counted announcements of reports, events, etc. as a post. Several blogs come out at the top – and bottom – irrespective of where you draw the cutoff; some, however, are more sensitive to the cutoff point.
I’d be curious how many of the top-100 you get through before you get hauled back to the living room for another game of charades.
|Photo © Dominic Sansoni / World Bank|
The development community hasn’t exactly only just woken up to the fact that development is about achieving something. Projects have had logframes since time immemorial, showing how project activities and spending are expected to lead ultimately to development outcomes—things that matter to people, like health and learning. But the “results agenda” (an agenda that dates back to 2003 but which seems to be gaining momentum) has the scope to be transformative in at least four ways.
1) Work backwards, not forwards
First, it invites us to work backwards from these things that matter and think about alternative ways to achieving these outcomes. Take education. A lot of projects in the Bank and other development agencies have focused on building and rehabilitating schools, with the expectation that this will lead to higher school enrollments. And yet as my colleague Deon Filmer showed a while ago, proximity to a school has very little effect on the likelihood of a child enrolling in school. By contrast, as he and Norbert Schady showed in another paper, providing scholarships to poor children does increase enrollments.