Ahmed Galal is currently Managing Director of the Economic Research Forum, a regional research institution covering the Arab countries, Iran and Turkey.
As someone who values the role of knowledge and strong endogenous research capacity in advancing the cause of development, I was very impressed by the speech Robert Zoellick, World Bank President, gave on September 29 at Georgetown University. The speech, on development economics research and the role of the World Bank, stimulated an interesting debate, with Dani Rodrick being favorable, Bill Easterly critical and Nancy Birdsall somewhere in between.
From my perspective, the speech is refreshingly critical of the “one size fits all” approach to reform, honest about the evolution of thinking within the Bank, and open-minded about the new research agenda for development. It hits target by advocating research that is policy relevant. And it calls for “Democratization of Research” and a new role for the Bank as a knowledge broker and facilitator. All these are in line with the views of many researchers in the developing world, myself included.
One might not necessarily agree with the long list of research questions that Zoellick puts forward, but it is hard not to agree that we need a better understanding of how transformation takes place from a state of underdevelopment to a state of development, including the conditions under which industrial policy works. Nor is it any less important to be concerned with the determinants of opportunity, having invested heavily in understanding the ingredients of economic growth. And in an increasingly volatile and globalized world, one cannot ignore issues of social protection.
Where I am less certain is how all this will be translated into action, both within and outside the Bank. Zoellick’s speech highlighted the fact that the Bank has evolved over the years, in response to the demands of its clients. However, changes within the Bank are often slow to come by. Moreover, it is not apparent how the Bank will ensure that the new research agenda is being pursued. Nor how the relationship between those creating knowledge and those packaging loans will become stronger than it is right now. Finally, what will the Bank do to align staff career development with the creative adoption of new knowledge? To outsiders, it seems that the current incentive structure is largely driven by lending and less by development outcomes, despite ex post evaluations and other measures to reduce this tendency.
It is commendable that the Bank has already moved vigorously on making data available to external researchers globally. However, it is not clear what the Bank’s new role is in working with other supporters of research, research networks and think tanks will be, especially in the developing world. What is the right balance between doing in-house research and supporting research carried out by others? And what kind of resources and attention the World Bank is willing to allocate to such partnerships?
If I may cite one example that I am very familiar with, it is the support the Bank, in partnership with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, has extended to the Economic Research Forum (ERF) out of the Global Development Facility. It is called Research Initiative for Arab Development (RIAD), and aims at scaling up research capacity in the Arab region and enhancing a regionally driven research agenda for several years. The research agenda, developed in consultation with regional stakeholders, covers five themes: equality and inequality, natural resources and economic diversification, regional integration, environmental economics and institutional dynamics, including political economy issues. Through this partnership, it is remarkable what progress ERF has been able to make. The nature of the support, being multi-year and thematic, has allowed ERF to develop a solid research agenda and engage multiple researchers on the development challenges facing the region.
This is but one example of how the Bank may work with regional networks, helping to create knowledge rather than merely disseminate it. The question is, how much further the Bank can - or needs to – evolve, both internally and externally to be a truly knowledge Bank? I would say a lot.