Amidst all the noise of the 24-hour news cycle and current events competing for our attention there lurks a danger that we lose sight of our mission: the fundamental issues in development that we are committed to solve remain urgent and obviously relevant. Now more than ever, the World Bank and DEC (home to the Bank’s research unit) in particular should focus on core research questions whose answers can help end poverty and improve countless lives. These questions rise above the ebb and flow of the political tide and are deeply important to the millions of people that we strive to raise up.
What would bring together the China trade shock, road blocks in the West Bank, and the Belt and Road initiative? The 6th Annual IMF-World Bank-WTO Trade Research Conference, at which staff of the three institutions presented the results of twelve research projects.
The Conference is over, but the website lives on, and here you can find preliminary versions of papers. To whet your appetite, here are three examples of research that use creative methodologies and raise provocative questions.
In response to the problems of high coordination costs among the poor, efforts are underway in many countries to organize the poor through "self-help groups" (SHGs) -- membership-based organizations that aim to promote social cohesion through a mixture of education, access to finance, and linkages to wider development programs.
We will be live blogging and Tweeting during the keynote presentations on both days of the World Bank's Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE) this coming Monday and Tuesday (May 7-8).
Hernando de Soto of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (Peru) will be speaking on Monday @ 9am (EST) on 'Live, Dead, and Fictitious Capital' and Timothy Besley of the London School of Economics (UK) will be speaking on Tuseday @ 9am (EST) on 'Transparency and Accountability: Interpreting the Evidence.'
We're keen on your receiving your questions, so be sure to send them our way through the World Bank Live platform.
Look forward to seeing you online!
One widely-accepted political economy research finding is that informed citizens receive greater benefits from government transfer programs. The evidence for the impact of information comes from particular contexts—disaster relief in India and welfare payments in the USA during the Great Depression. Do other contexts yield similar results? New research on the distribution of anti-malaria bed nets in Benin suggests: “No.” Instead, local health officials charged more informed households for bed nets that they could have given them for free.
The Benin context differs in three ways. First, the policy is not the distribution of cash, but of health benefits. Households’ access to information then influences not only their knowledge of government programs to distribute such benefits, but also the value they place on them.
Second, the political context also differs. In younger democracies, like Benin’s, citizens are more likely to confront additional obstacles, besides a lack of information, in their efforts to extract promised benefits from government.
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.
Life before the web was neatly compartmentalized. Research was produced by researchers who wrote articles for academic journals; news was written up by professional journalists who wrote for newspapers and talked on news broadcasts on the TV and the radio; policy was made by politicians and policymakers behind closed doors in smoke-filled ministries in capital cities; and entertainment was crafted by professionals and delivered in theaters, cinemas and on the TV.
The Sunday Business section of the New York Times prominently featured an image of a huge vault overflowing with bits and bytes. It was a story about the Bank’s Open Data initiative and claimed that datasets and information will ultimately become more valuable than Bank lending. It’s a powerful idea and one that sounds similar to the knowledge bank articulated by Jim Wolfensohn nearly ten years ago. But there is an important distinction between the two. This is not about the World Bank as the central repository of knowledge sharing its knowledge and wisdom with clients from the South. Instead, it’s about “democratizing development economics” in that it levels the playing field on knowledge creation and dissemination and opens the development paradigm to participation from researchers and practitioners, software developers and students, from north and south.
The English cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant once offered the following piece of advice to strategists of all sorts who are concerned with their reputation: “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and call whatever you hit the target…” With little time and fewer resources than elsewhere to battle the burning issues of poverty, insecurity and sociopolitical instability, economists and policymakers in developing countries may not be in the position to benefit from such cynical wisdom. Rather than listening to Ashleigh Brilliant, they should always keep in mind the constraints they face and the urgency of the situation in poor countries, and reflect on the maxim that recommends to “always aim before shooting.
A policy and research domain where there is a serious deficit of strategic thinking and prioritization is that of evaluation, which is traditionally defined as the systematic assessment of the worth or merit of some project, program or policy. The importance of evaluation cannot be underestimated: first, in a world where ideas compete constantly for funding, it is essential to ensure that value for money is at the core of public policy. Second, only by assessing the pertinence and efficiency of development initiatives can we get a full picture of their outcomes, and ensure accountability. Third and perhaps even more importantly, evaluation helps define the criteria for decision-making on new initiatives, and chart the course of future action. It highlights what works and what does not. It is therefore not surprising that evaluation has become a hot area of research and policy.
It is not surprising that trade policy -- as it relates to economic growth – has not figured prominently in the development agendas of least developed countries (LDCs). This is mostly due to the fact that key issues, such as health, clean water, conflict and war have dominated attention and driven debate and discussion– and rightly so.
But what about trade as an engine of growth to help drive down poverty – to help address broader development goals?
The good news story on trade and the LDCs is often ignored. Bad news stories and editorials (along with blog posts in on-line media) sell newspapers and make for splashy television and video clips on YouTube. This is what dominates the stories and headlines.