Published on Let's Talk Development

Staying focused

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Amidst all the noise of the 24-hour news cycle and current events competing for our attention there lurks a danger that we lose sight of our mission: the fundamental issues in development that we are committed to solve remain urgent and obviously relevant. Now more than ever, the World Bank and DEC (home to the Bank’s research unit) in particular should focus on core research questions whose answers can help end poverty and improve countless lives. These questions rise above the ebb and flow of the political tide and are deeply important to the millions of people that we strive to raise up.

By research, I don’t mean recycling well known statistics and anecdotes to produce glossy figures and tables.  Rather, I mean rigorous scholarship based on sound analytical frameworks, reliable data and proper methodology that provides new and credible insight into the causes of - and potential solutions to - many problems.  Good research is by its nature longer term and its value is independent of the presidency of a particular institution or country.
In recent years, the World Bank has made progress on measuring and increasing human capital, but we have still only scratched the surface in identifying the most effective routes to improving health and education. As David Evans points out in his recent blog, education spending doesn’t necessarily improve learning outcomes. There is promising research, both within and outside the Bank, trying to sort out which interventions and policies work, which don’t, and in what contexts. The World Bank has a comparative advantage when it comes to questions that call for context-specific answers that depend on both the institutional features and the realities on the ground of countries where we work. A constructive partnership between DEC and those who have wisdom earned through first-hand experience could go a long way.
Similarly, we have found ways to harness technology to improve service delivery in the developing world, but much work remains to be done, most importantly on the question of how technology can generate jobs and facilitate not just humanitarian relief but also long-term growth and development.  As for firms, we still need to understand what policies encourage competition and help boost productivity.  We also need to find ways to deal with informality without stifling flexibility and suppressing employment. 
The war on poverty will be won or lost on what we do in Africa.   While extreme poverty is estimated to have declined to 8.6% globally, it is still stubbornly high in Sub-Saharan Africa where it is projected to remain in double digits by 2030. The model of export-led industrialization that helped millions escape poverty in Asia in recent decades is increasingly under pressure from automation and the backlash against globalization.  Regional integration and appropriate investments in infrastructure reducing the costs of transport, communication and trade seem more important than ever - and for this reason we need research to guide sound policies.
And last but not least, in order to inform these questions we need to continue to build on an area that the World Bank pioneered and which remains a core strength: collecting and normalizing data so that researchers within the Bank and also throughout the broader research community can work together to achieve our development goals. My modest proposal, therefore, is that we close those news tabs in our browsers and get back to focusing on research.


Pinelopi Goldberg

Former Chief Economist, World Bank Group

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