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Bill Easterly chimes in on Part III of our series

Berk Ozler's picture

Bill Easterly was kind enough to send us some detailed comments on Part III of our series on "The Impact of Economics Blogs," asking us that we post them on our blog. We are more than happy to oblige:

Berk, thanks for offering to post this response to your post on your blog. I respect you and many others in the World Bank's Research Department who produce very high quality research that meets rigorous academic standards.

I would suggest to you as a colleague that you omit the issue of World Bank censorship from your paper. It raises unwelcome issues that distract from the valuable contribution of the rest of the paper. There seems to be a potential conflict of interest in reporting research about the quality (via censorship constraints) of your own home institution.

The reader also wonders about how the World Bank's public relations department (abbreviation EXT) might use your academic research for its own non-academic agenda. So EXT might be happy to allow your blog to operate unhindered but would not allow other blogs or public fora that might show the Bank in an unfavorable light. We cannot observe the set of blogs that don't exist because of EXT, so the evidence from your blog's existence provides a very partial view of censorship.

It seems obvious that EXT would not allow blogs or other public fora to report findings that could go either way on politically sensitive topics like foreign aid, autocracy in major member states of the World Bank, or indeed the effect of the World Bank's own operations on development outcomes.

Best, Bill

Here is our response:

Dear Bill,

Thanks for these comments.

1. On the issue of whether there is a conflict of interest in reporting about censorship and quality of our home institution, this is an issue we have thought about. All we are doing is reporting what the data from our surveys and experiment shows- namely, that there is a perception that there is some censorship at the World Bank, and that reading our blog lowers this perception. Similarly on the quality of research. We will be posting the data and code along with the paper itself, so others are welcome to check this inference.

2. On how others might use and misuse our results - we look forward to you and other readers keeping both us and our external affairs people honest.

3. As to whether we can report findings that could go either way on politically sensitive topics like the effect of the World Bank's own operations on development outcomes...I guess words are cheap, but we plan on blogging on interesting research, whatever it says - and indeed have a number of impact evaluations underway which are precisely trying to measure the effect of some of the World Bank's own operations - and we will certainly blog about those, regardless of what those results show. We also invite readers to alert us to impact assessments we might have missed which deserve discussion on these issues.

Thanks again. Sincerely,

Berk & David.

Postscript: This link, which is relevant to the discussion here, came to our attention after posting this (one of the benefits of blogging -- instant feedback) courtesy of Chris Blattman tweeting: http://www.ictworks.org/news/2011/08/17/great-success-world-bank-has-70-failure-rate-ict4d-projects-increase-universal-acces#comment-1049.

Comments

Submitted by Mark Baird on
Dear Berk, I have no problem with the limited conclusions you draw in point 1 and agree that the jury is still out on points 2 and 3. But Bill is raising a broader issue about censorship at the World Bank which you can't throw much light on -- except to say there is a perception it exists. There is an inevitable tension between the independence of research and the operational agenda of the Bank. When I worked for Michael Bruno many years ago, he argued strongly that the credibility of the institution gained more from the independence pf research, than from any cenrsorship, and accepted the responsibility as Chief Economist to defend this position. I believe others in senior management agreed and may still do so. But it is hard for the outside world to know whether censorship is biasing the choice of research topics and the dissemination of results at the World Bank. I recall an independent evaluation a few years ago which questioned the independence and reliability of World Bank research. Your blog may improve perceptions, but doesn't tell us anything about prevailing levels of censorship. As you say, your future critiques of Bank operations may shed some light on this issue. But, as Bill suggests, we may never know what you don't publish! Keep up the good work! Mark

Submitted by Berk Ozler on
Dear Mark, Thanks for the comments -- which provide a useful perspective from someone who has worked in DEC as well as operations. I know that you have been following our three part series on the "Impact of Economics Blogs," but nonetheless a little background is still useful. In our paper, we report on our readers' perception regarding how much Bank staff have freedom on what they can blog about. Whether or not potential candidates in the job market for development economists think they will have freedom of speech if they work at the WB's research department is an important outcome not only for the WB, but for many other development organizations. Here is the section copied from the paper: "The four core bloggers on Development Impact post their blogs without going through any approval process, and the blogs are written in a more conversational tone than on most of the World Bank’s blogs. There is an impression that World Bank researchers face some restrictions and censorship on what they can write - as evidenced by the control group mean of 3.4 out of 5 on a scale of 1 = high degree of censorship and 5 = complete freedom. Both the ATE from matching and the experimental results for the research-focused group show a positive impact of blog readership on this score, indicating readers of the blog are less likely to view researchers at the World Bank as censored in terms of what they can post.' This whole debate, pretty much only between Bill and us until now, started because Bill found something objectionable in this paragraph. Even after we stated, as you correctly point out in your comments, that we are not speaking to the level of censorship that exists in the Bank (whatever that level may be) but rather to that which exists for this blog (none so far), Bill kept up his disbelief in Twitterverse, stating "Authors kind enough to post my letter, but I'm surprised they deny ANY censorship." (Emphasis added) You can see the twisting of our words that is going on here. Neither David nor I ever spoke to the level of censorship in the Bank, but just reported the truth on how our blog operates and what our survey findings are, but Bill's implication is different: that we are lying. I personally would have expected better from Bill... Personal disappointment aside, you're absolutely right that the readers of this blog may never exactly know what we don't publish. Believe me when I say that it is equally true that we don't know what might get censored until we write something that prompt attempts at censorship from senior management or EXT. All we can do is to be honest and vigilant, have intellectual integrity, both as blog readers and as bloggers, and to keep pushing the envelope. This is what David and I wrote in our reply to Bill yesterday: we surely hope that our readers will keep our feet to the fire and keep us honest. There has not been a research paper yet (Bank work or by outside academics; about Bank's work or on other development issues) that I wanted to write about in this blog but did not because of fear of any censorship: our research director fights for our freedom of speech regularly. Nor did we have a single attempt at censorship from anyone in the Bank yet about any post since we started blogging in April 2011. None of this proves that the former or the latter will not happen sometime in the future. But, if it does, it will be time to shutter the doors and windows of this popular (so far) blog. Thanks very much for the comments -- they are truly and greatly appreciated. Berk. P.S. Perhaps Shanta Devarajan, who rund the "Africa Can End Poverty" blog, also a successful Bank blog, can chime in on this issue here.

Berk, David, Bill, Mark and others, Even though I'm on vacation, I would like to chime in on this interesting discussion. First, thanks to Berk and David for their interesting paper and posts on econo-blogging, and for their superb Development Impact blog. The reason for the Africa Can blog is slightly different from, but complementary with, those identified in Berk and David's paper and blog posts. That reason is based on the observation that public policy in developing countries is no longer decided by someone "whispering in the finance minister's ear". Rather, it is the result of a domestic political consensus which, in turn, is sustained if it results from a vigorous domestic debate (think of trade liberalization in India). The purpose of my blog is to help nourish that debate with evidence and, in countries where it is needed, to help foster the debate. In short, I see the blog as an integral part of my job as chief economist of the World Bank's Africa Region. Viewed this way, the function of the Africa Can blog is different from disseminating "messages" from the World Bank. Indeed, one of the things I try to do is to show our readers the debates we have inside the Bank, as a way of encouraging similar debates in their countries (my exchanges with Justin Lin and Celestin Monga on industrial policy is an example). My blog therefore is distinct from the functions of the World Bank's external relations department, although I receive a lot of support and encouragement from them. I like to think it also reinforces the Bank's approach to open knowledge and open data, but this is not the primary purpose of Africa Can. In the early days, there were occasional concerns that some of my posts were "off-message", but once we explained the purpose of the blog, most people were quite happy with it. Now, whenever I receive a comment from a World Bank colleague on a blog post, I encourage them to post it on the blog, since that is the purpose of the blog. The only "censorship" is self-censorship. I make sure that everything we post on the blog is evidence-based. And I use language that is not unnecessarily inflammatory because this often distracts from the substantive discussion, which is the whole point of the blog.