- knowledge bank
Like all other development agencies, the World Bank has few systematic ways to measure, track or even recognize the effectiveness of its work. Instead, stakeholders are more likely to insist on fiduciary oversight and lending volumes; management is more accountable for meeting lending targets and upholding administrative requirements than meeting development goals; and approvals of Bank projects and country partnership strategies – not surprisingly – are rarely based on explicit analyses of their development effectiveness.
None of this is new. Enhancing “development effectiveness” emerged as a key concern in a recent review of the World Bank’s governance structure, for example, but similar concerns have been expressed at least since the Wapenhans Report twenty years ago. What is new is the energy surrounding current efforts to put development effectiveness at the center of Bank operations. But doing this means confronting the essential problem that there is no cookbook for development. Whether we care about “big” development – tripling incomes per capita in Malawi over the next 15 years – or “little” development – improving health outcomes for rural women in Orissa this year by expanding access to cooking stoves – some things we think work actually do work, at least under certain conditions; other things we only think work, when in fact we have no evidence either way; and we are fairly sure that even all the things we know (or suspect) work will only get us part-way towards our development goals.
An organization with ‘motor company’ in its name might produce several types of vehicle (cars, trucks, etc.) in several variations (models) at several different plants, and might sell these vehicles in several different regions of the world. The company wouldn’t last long if it didn’t know how many of each model – and at what cost – it was producing in each plant, and how many – and at what price – it was selling in each region. In the World Bank – where we like to think of ourselves as the ‘knowledge bank’ – we produce several types of document in several vice presidencies (VPUs) and we make them available in hard copy and in electronic format in all regions of the world. Yet as far as I know we don’t systematically track how many of each document type each VPU produces, let alone how successful each is in terms of sales and downloads. We have these data for World Bank books, but they’re a small fraction of our overall document output.
The lack of data ought to make it hard to think about how the institution might do things differently in its knowledge work to serve developing countries better. What type of Bank documents are produced most? And which are used most? Which VPUs are the big producers of knowledge? Which document types are downloaded most? Which VPUs produce the most downloaded documents?
As I reported in my last post, Jim Kim’s arrival as World Bank President has reinvigorated the debate about the idea of the World Bank being a ‘knowledge bank’. In the post, I argued that the knowledge produced by the Bank – whether gleaned from its lending operations, or from its research and other analytic work – is a global public good, and that we should therefore assess the success of the institution in its knowledge work not in terms of how specific ‘client’ governments value the outputs of its knowledge work but rather in terms of how people around the world use and value them.
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.
Today's launch of the World Bank's Open Knowledge Repository (OKR) and Open Access Policy might not seem a big deal. But it is.
The knowledge bank’s assets are huge, but until today were hard to access
The Bank is a huge producer of knowledge on development. This knowledge surfaces in formal publications of the Bank – the institution publishes books and flagship reports like the World Development Report. It also surfaces in publications of external publishers, including journal articles – up to now, these external publications haven't been seen by the Bank as part of its knowledge output despite the fact they dwarf the Bank's own publications in volume and in citations. The Bank's knowledge also surfaces in reports, and in informal "knowledge products" like briefing notes and other web content.
When it comes to use of social media in development, development institutions remind me of lumbering elephants walking down the autobahn. In any other sphere, development organizations would not be at such a disadvantage. We have been building roads for ever. There has not been any fundamental change in the technology of building roads. Development organizations learnt slowly but well about development challenges in various sectors and are now legitimate experts in these areas. All the same the title of “knowledge institutions” is a bit hard to swallow. The reason, probably somewhat unfair, is that knowledge today, for most people is intimately tied to technology, social media too is viewed as a medium for knowledge, much like the network of roads and highways are a medium for commerce.
Everyone likes a happy ending and this applies in development work too. Quite often, we have the tendency to showcase our successes through best practices that are upheld as evidence that a particular approach works. But what about those instances when we may have made some mistakes along the way or failed outright? Humans have a tendency to focus on successes rather than failures.
"This [handling of failure] is difficult for us to do well because we have strong human bias to value successes more than we value failures. In most organizations failure is stigmatized and nobody wants to be associated with it…..Unfortunately this produces some dangerous side-effects. Since improbable failures have high information content, it is important to communicate information about failure quickly and widely throughout the organization. To the extent that we hinder the flow of this information, we will force people to reinvent failures that we have already experienced, and that generates no useful new information."