Since the first industrial revolution, waves of technological improvement have changed the boundary of production and redefined the role of the state. The information and communication technology revolution has not only increased productivity, but has also reinterpreted the function of time and distance—billions of activities are now linked with “one-click,” and new transactions become possible with “just-in-time” delivery. If the technological revolution has made participation in Global Value Chains (GVCs) somewhat inevitable, it has also accentuated both the risks and opportunities associated with this involvement. On the one hand, participation in GVCs creates new opportunities for profits and expands the market horizon; but on the other hand, it exposes the enterprise sector to risks previously shielded by market boundaries and geographic distances, while increasing the scale of information asymmetry.
Following the launch of the World Development Report (WDR) 2014, Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development, various team members have been traveling to different countries to present its findings. I recently joined other team members in a visit to Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa, with a stop in the middle in London and Oxford.
One thing that struck me was how relevant the topic of risk management is for many countries. The importance of risk management seemed immediately apparent to many participants in our discussions. Indeed, many participants gave examples of risk management measures that have been practiced in their cultures for generations (such as storing grain in African villages), or linked messages in our Report to common sayings – for example, as Professor Awad from the American University in Cairo told us, our message on the importance of saving in good times for the bad times has a direct parallel in the old Arabic adage, “to keep a white coin for a black day”.
Family whose home floods every year. Colombia
Photo: © Scott Wallace / World Bank
It is an alarming trend: extreme weather events and disasters recorded around the globe are increasing in frequency, and in the magnitude of overall economic losses they cause. The recent devastation left by Taiphoon Haiyan in the Philippines is a tragic reminder that many countries around the world continue to be highly vulnerable to natural hazards. While low- and high-income countries alike experience extreme natural events, it is particularly in lower income countries where such events result in economic and humanitarian disasters.
However, the statistics on casualties and economic losses reported in the media fail to give us the full picture of a much more complex, extensive, and prolonged tragedy — which is mainly experienced bythe poorest.
Since the WDR 2014 launched in early October, members of the WDR team have been travelling to many cities in different countries to present the Report. These trips are colloquially known as the "road show"—a grossly misleading term since travel is mostly by air and the events are more characterized by discussion among professionals than by show-bizz.
I would like to take the time to reflect on what I have been hearing at three very interesting and well-attended events held recently at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University in Montreal, United Nations in Geneva, and at the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), World Bank, Washington D.C. (full disclosure: I work there now).
The collapse of a US investment bank in the fall of 2008 turned a severe credit crunch into the worst financial crisis since the great depression, providing a blunt reminder that mismanagement of risks does not go unpunished. What is more, mismanaged risks do not respect boundaries in a tightly interconnected world, damaging anything they touch on their path, hurting especially the poor and vulnerable. While financial systems can contribute to economic development by providing people with useful tools for risk management, such as credit, savings, and insurance, they can create severe crises with devastating social and economic effects when they fail to manage the risks they retain.
...but is only one aspect of what we can achieve with effective risk management.
Resilience has become a sexy word in development. Ban Ki Moon has said that resilience should be an important component of the post-2015 agenda; there is a blooming industry of publications with the term resilience incorporated into their titles; daily google searches for the word resilience have roughly doubled in the past few years.
From a risk management perspective, resilience can be understood as the ability of a system to withstand and recover from negative shocks. Given the plethora of risks people face in their daily lives, and the damaging and sometimes permanent effect that negative shocks can have, resilience is clearly a worthy goal of improved risk management. This is especially the case for the poor: with few assets to help them prepare for these risks, and often without good access to markets and government services, they are often disproportionately exposed to and affected by negative shocks.
“How can risk be measured and managed better globally? “
This was the question posed to the panelists of the “Risk and Opportunity” event on Oct 9, 2013. It was ironic that a World Development Report (WDR) on risk, which I supported through online publicity, was launching at the same time that a serious storm was threatening Odisha, my home state in India. As the Annual Meetings of top ministers, policy experts and civil society organizations progressed, so did cyclone Phailin, and the importance of the theme of the WDR 2014 couldn’t have been more pronounced.
The declaration, in 1979, of the worldwide eradication of smallpox marked a highly unusual achievement. The only human disease ever to be eradicated, the eradication of smallpox is also unusual in being an instance of successful risk management that many people have actually heard about. When it comes to risk management, there is often more attention to the failures than to the successes. While crises, crimes, disasters, and social unrest dominate the front pages, and the attention of our leaders, the champions of risk management whose foresight averts damage and destruction rarely get the credit they deserve.
That is a shame because many development problems have a basis in deficient risk management. Take poverty. While every year many families escape from poverty, others fall on hard times. Illness, for example, is a frequent cause of poverty in developing countries where most people have no health insurance and friends and family provide the only safety net. In fact, the toxic mix of high risk and inadequate risk management are implicated in a host of development problems, ranging from malnutrition, infant mortality, civil strife, crime, violence, to sclerotic private sector investment and job creation. To overcome these problems and prosper, the developing world needs champions of risk management.
The King of Egypt dreamt that seven strong and healthy cows were eaten by seven scrawny and ugly ones. Then, he dreamt that seven hearty ears of corn were replaced with seven scorched and damaged corncobs. He didn’t know what to make of these dreams and asked his advisors to interpret them. No one could. From his cell in prison, Joseph learned of the King’s dreams and interpreted their meaning: Seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of drought in the land of Egypt. The years of famine would be so abysmal that they would erase the memory of the plentiful years. Joseph advised the King to prepare, using the bounty of the good harvest to withstand the calamity of the times to come. The King followed Joseph’s advice and saved the people of Egypt from hunger and disaster.
This story presents in a nutshell the message that we wanted the World Development Report 2014 (WDR 2014) to convey: In the face of an uncertain world, preparation in good times is essential for resilience in bad times and for prosperity always.