Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Who reads the World Bank reports?

I don't. At least not regularly like I do with ECLAC, ILO, IMF and UNCTAD reports. There are a few ones that become highly controversial and had a broad readership, like the infamous East Asian Miracle Report back in 1993, written by a team that included Joseph Stiglitz, when the chief economist was Larry Summers, which presented the market-friendly approach to development, even if it made some concessions about the role of the State and industrial policy (basically saying that interventions that are market friendly are okay). The concessions to the role of State intervention were basically pushed by the Japanese government, that wanted to provide a theoretical framework more in accordance with its own development experience, and were resisted by the Bank's staff and the US. The market-friendly approach had been fully developed in the World Development Report 1991, the Bank's flagship publication.

Another World Development Report that was infamous was the 2000/2001 one. This one was on poverty, and the then chief economist Stiglitz brought Ravi Kanbur to lead the team that wrote it. The original draft gave more relevance to the empowerment of the poor than to growth (not much discussion of what causes growth, however, which would be more relevant, in my view), and it is said that Summers, US Treasury Secretary by that time, re-wrote several sections of the report. In particular, the Treasury did not want the World Bank to seem anti-globalization after the Seattle protests. Eventually Stiglitz and Kanbur resigned (Robert Wade wrote about the whole affair here).

The interesting thing is that with all this drama you would expect the readership of the World Bank reports to be huge. As it turns out, not so much.* This paper shows that:
"The World Bank invests about one-quarter of its budget for country services in knowledge products... About 13 percent of policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times while more than 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded. Almost 87 percent of policy reports were never cited."
A lot of these are country specific reports. But given that a lot of the research is not properly autonomous, and is highly influenced by donors (meaning essentially the US Treasury), one wonders what is the purpose of the World Bank's research department.

* That is also likely true in academia, by the way. But you would expect the World Bank to have a broader readership than obscure academic journals.

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