Last week on Let’s Talk Development, I asked what the term “science of delivery” (SOD) means. I suggested that SOD is about moving from thinking about “what to deliver” to “how to deliver”. We know, for example, the interventions that cut child mortality (bednets, vaccinations, breastfeeding, etc.) but these interventions reach too few children, and the trick is to get them delivered to more. Much of the Bank’s analytic work, policy dialogue and lending work has focused precisely on how to reform policies and programs to ensure the interventions that are needed to improve development outcomes actually reach people. Much of this work merits the term “science” – it makes use of an explicit “theory of change” in the form of a results framework that reflects the latest social science, and builds on rigorous empirical evidence that compares actual outcomes with an explicit and plausible counterfactual.
The World Bank’s president, Jim Kim, has now made two major speeches outlining his vision for the institution – one at the Annual Meetings the other at Georgetown University on April 2 ahead of the upcoming Spring Meetings.
Several themes are emerging. Two are easy to grasp and likely to resonate strongly with Bank staff and stakeholders: “ending poverty” and “boosting shared prosperity”. For years the Bank has seen fighting poverty as its mission. It has made major contributions in the areas of measuring and monitoring poverty – Bank staff have authored many of the world’s most-cited publications with poverty in the title. The Bank’s work at the country level has always had a strong anti-poverty focus. “Ending” poverty – rather than merely “fighting” it – is a natural next step. The idea of “boosting shared prosperity” also resonates. While economic growth is still seen as the principal driver of poverty-reduction, the goal has always been pro-poor growth – a concept that links naturally to the idea of “shared prosperity”.
I had been warned—I found it hard to believe—that WHO ministerial meetings can be rather dull affairs of little consequence. Ministers typically take it in turn to read their prepared speeches; their fellow ministers appear to be listening attentively through their headsets but some, it seems, have been known to zap through the simultaneous translation channels in search of lighter entertainment. Speeches aren’t played over the loudspeakers for fear of waking jetlagged ministers from their afternoon naps. WHO is a very considerate organization: it likes to make sure that while on its premises visitors reach “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Well I’m happy to report that last week’s ministerial meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC)—held in Geneva on February 18-19, jointly organized by WHO and the World Bank, and attended by delegates from all over the world (see map)—didn’t fit the stereotype.
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.
The Economist carried a couple of stories recently about how two hitherto major institutions in my home country (newspapers and pubs) have been forced to adapt in the face of changes in public preferences. Many didn’t—as a result newspaper circulation and pub numbers have both fallen dramatically. The newspapers and pubs that did survive operate very different business models from the newspapers and pubs in existence even 10 years ago.
Some data I’ve assembled make me wonder whether—like the newspaper and pub—the development-agency flagship might not also be an institution in need of reform.
Most big development and international agencies have a flagship. The World Bank launched its World Development Report in 1978. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook started two years later. The UNDP launched its Human Development Report in 1990, and WHO followed with its World Health Report five years later. Several other UN agencies have annual or periodic flagship reports too.
We’ve read a good deal recently about the democratization of research. UNESCO’s Science Report 2010 showed a growth in the developing-country share of science research. As UNESCO Director General Irina Bokovo put it in her Foreword:
“The distribution of research and development (R&D) efforts between North and South has changed with the emergence of new players in the global economy. A bipolar world in which science and technology (S&T) were dominated by the Triad made up of the European Union, Japan and the USA is gradually giving way to a multi-polar world, with an increasing number of public and private research hubs spreading across North and South.”