Published on Let's Talk Development

Populism and development policy

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Populism – the idea that a particular social group speaks for the nation as a whole, and should be first in the line for social benefits – threatens the core values of the post-World War order. It also challenges the World Bank’s own approach to development policy. As the world prepares for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a year-long commemoration, culminating on December 10, 2018, we at the World Bank can use the occasion to reflect on our commitments and uphold them courageously.

There are populisms on the left and the right, and each draws on its own national agendas and traditions, but what unites them is the belief that a particular political and social movement, usually embodied in a specific individual, has a moral monopoly on representation. That movement comprises the “real citizens” of the country. Sovereignty resides in the collective will of that group, not in constitutional norms. The leader, claiming to speak authentically on behalf of real citizens, is believed to articulate the views of his people and communicates directly to them, unmediated by the institutions of the state. He gains moral authority by purifying the cacophonous, plural voices percolating in civil society and its many outlets.

So understood, the principles of populism stand inconsistent with the basic values the World Bank has adopted:

Global concern. Most obviously, populism prioritizes the well-being of the “in-group” that comprises a political movement, and is skeptical or even hostile towards policies benefiting immigrants, refugees, minorities, and needy and distant strangers. The development project, at least since the elimination of poverty became the goal, is “guided by the belief that every life has equal value.” The World Bank’s commitments include improving the lives of people fleeing conflict, poor individuals around the world whom we have never met, and future generations whom we will never meet but who are being affected by our current choices and resource consumption decisions.

Accountability. Populism tends to distrust established intermediary institutions, such as the media, traditional political parties, a neutral judiciary, and the professions because they are  authorities rival to the people. They are also pluralist, permitting the representation of all individuals and interests that pass a certain standard of reason or argument. But these rival institutions are what make up the “checks and balances” of modern states. Development economists have emphasized the importance of accountability, in which decisions are subject to multiple kinds and sources of review, at least since the 1990s, with Sen and Dreze’s work on famines, and continuing into current concerns regarding extractive states. The World Bank, at least since it began its work on governance in the 1990s, has argued that accountability is crucial for service delivery and development outcomes.

Transparency. Populist messages value emotional resonance and authenticity and use ordinary language. Complicated arguments are suspect because they are the language of elites, whose training inclines them to a global and pluralist outlook, and whose reliance on data and argument makes them always potentially disloyal outsiders. The World Bank relies, of course, on scientific expertise. The Bank’s policy recommendations and investments routinely include data systems, technical assistance, scientific evaluations, and feedback from beneficiaries.

Participation. Populists tend to believe that being part of a movement, and expressing affiliation with it, are valuable in themselves. Participation is not valued for its capacity to reconcile conflicting views, deliberate on policy choices, and aggregate preferences. For the Bank, participation is valuable because it can incorporate excluded voices, encourage deliberation, and identify gains from trade.

Keynes wrote that “soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” Clarifying and explaining the core values and ideas of the development project, as we understand them, would be a wonderful way to honor the Universal Declaration of Human rights in the coming year.


Varun Gauri

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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