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.
What does open data and development mean for Afghanistan?
Last November, the first open data mission revealed Afghans’ interest and commitment to foster knowledge sharing, collaboration and openness for a broader and targeted engagement in Afghanistan. In my blog, Afghanistan’s First Open Data Dialogue Delivers, I described my first-hand experience on Afghans enthusiasm about improving data dissemination, national dialogue and partnership between users and producers of statistics, and the drive for more effective aid and technical assistance through better coordination and alignment to the agreed National Statistical Plans.
Given confusion around the phrase “science of delivery,” it’s important to state that delivery science is not a “one-size-fits-all” prescription based on the premise that what works somewhere can work anywhere. And it does not profess that research and evidence ensure a certain outcome.
A few weeks ago, the World Bank and the Korea Development Institute convened a global conference on the science of delivery. Several development institutions assembled including the Gates Foundation, the Grameen Foundation, UNICEF, the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, and the mHealth Alliance. We discussed development opportunities and challenges when focusing on the extremely poor, including experiments in health care, how technology is reducing costs and increasing effectiveness, and the difficulty of moving from successful pilots to delivery at scale.
The consensus in Seoul was that a science of delivery underscores the importance of a data-driven and rigorous process to understand what works, under what conditions, why, and how. Too often in international development, we jump to conclusions without understanding counterfactuals and assume we can replicate success without understanding its constituent elements.
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Tacit knowledge has emerged as the “holy grail” of sorts, with many organizations (including the World Bank) seeking a way to capture and deliver it. Tacit knowledge is a difficult concept, which I thought was worth exploring a bit.
The origin of this idea has been widely credited to Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian scientist of the 20th century. In his book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Polanyi examines how individuals gain knowledge and share it, arguing that knowledge is highly personal, saying “into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known.” He goes on to say that we can see personal knowledge (tacit knowledge) at work in the area of skills and connoisseurship and that some types of knowledge have limited capability for transfer – hence the difficulty of this quest for tacit knowledge. A useful analogy for this kind of knowledge transfer is the master-apprentice relationship, where the master’s knowledge is passed along to the apprentice in practical ways. What’s more, there is a wide body of evidence to show that tacit knowledge is substantially correlated with job performance.
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.
This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).
In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.
The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.
A recent Poverty Matters blog post in the Guardian noted that mobile technologies and social media are creating cheap ways for citizens to interact with their governments and that development projects are trying to tap into these technologies. It gave a plug to the Bank’s new Open Finances mobile app that lets users find and monitor bank-funded projects near where they live, using mapping and GPS technology.
With the advent of the New Year and given the on-going work in the Bank on the open agenda, here are three things we may accomplish in 2013:
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012
Originally published on April 3, 2012
Knowledge, or the lack of, is often associated with the success or failure of development initiatives. For decades, communication’s main role was to fill the knowledge gap between what audiences knew and what they needed to know, with the assumption that this would induce change. We now know that this is seldom the case. In the modernization paradigm, media were expected to provide needed knowledge through messages that could fill knowledge gaps, build modern attitudes, and eventually shape behaviours. After years of under-delivering on their promises, development managers and decision-makers are increasingly realizing that it is not enough to have sound technical solutions and disseminate information in order to have audiences adopt the innovations.
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.
The Republic of Moldova is one of the first countries in the region and among the top 16 countries in the world to launch an open data platform. The initiatives of the Republic of Moldova to open its government and public data by capitalizing on Informational Technologies will lead to the improvement of public services, an increase in transparency and the promotion of innovation.