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World Bank President starts brawl about development economics research

UPDATE 4:30 PM, Sept 30 — debating Ravallion about World Bank censorship (see end of post)

World Bank President Robert Zoellick gave a speech at Georgetown University today calling for the “democratizing” of development research.  Bob Davis at The Wall Street Journal reports some reactions:

Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence, who led a commission on economic growth, said Mr. Zoellick’s comments are “generally not only in the right direction, but very useful.” Harvard economist Dani Rodrik…. also praised the World Bank president. “The speech hits all the right notes: the need for economists to demonstrate humility, eschew blueprints…and focus on evaluation but not at the expense of the big questions,” Mr. Rodrik said.

But the reaction wasn’t unanimous. New York University economist William Easterly…called Mr. Zoellick’s comments “amazingly presumptuous.” He says the current system of economic research, where ideas are picked apart by other economists, works well. If anything, he says World Bank economists are often the exception because their bosses pressure them “to reach the ‘right’ conclusions,” Mr. Easterly said—meaning that World Bank loans are useful and foreign aid is productive.

The World Bank’s chief of research, Martin Ravallion, responded, “I have never been told what conclusions I should reach, and I doubt very much that anyone told Bill Easterly what conclusions he should reach in his many years working for the Bank’s research department.”

That’s OK, Martin, you must have been on vacation when the World Bank pushed me out the back door for not reaching the right conclusions on aid.

Mr. Zoellick, a moderate Republican who pushed for trade expansion as U.S. Trade Representative, also said that researchers should keep an open mind about whether countries can benefit from heavy doses of industrial policy.

That won praise from Mr. Rodrik, who has long pushed that view, and opposition from Mr. Easterly. “The most extreme advocates of industrial policy have lost the argument in the free and fair competition of ideas” Mr. Easterly argued. “Zoellick is trying to politicize it” by making it a bigger part of a World Bank research agenda.

UPDATE: see Martin Ravallion’s comment below denying World Bank censorship, here is my response.

Martin, you are being disingenuous in what you do NOT say. Yes, I agree that if any given World Bank researcher sticks to publishing in academic journals, the findings do not spread to general public awareness, and, most importantly, the researchers themselves make no attempt to publicize their findings, then the researchers can say (ALMOST) anything they want (ALMOST because even then there have been exceptions and SOME politically sensitive findings would still be out of bounds). I myself did this for many years.

But once a researcher makes an effort to communicate with a broader audience beyond the tiny number who read academic journals, then any such statements are subject to censorship, as I found in my own experience personally, and others with whom I have communicated (unfortunately, they will not allow me to use their names) have verified similar experiences. So the World Bank researchers’ participation in the “democraticized” debate, which President  Zoellick says he wants, is still subject to censorship. I can’t believe you can really claim to deny this.

Moreover, the World Bank produces many public non-academic reports itself based on research findings. These reports’ conclusions are politically influenced and censored. Again I cannot believe you would deny this.

But thank you, Martin, for taking the time to engage in a dialogue on this. I do believe the research done for academic journals in the World Bank has generally been of high quality and meets standards of academic rigor.

best, Bill

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12 Comments

  1. citoyen wrote:

    Bill, can you give me some bibliographical advice on industrial policy? I’ve read some Rodrik and I find him pretty convincing, at least at the theoretical level.

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Tom D wrote:

    I too wonder who these extreme advocates of IP are? and what is the empirical basis for rejecting whatever their core ideas are?

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Nelson wrote:

    In Rodrik’s blog you can also read “The main theme of his speech is “democratizing development economics.” I like this as a slogan, but fear that it may end up another gimmick. Zoellick offers no new ideas on the governance and internal organization of the Bank. And without changes in these, the bulk of the Bank’s research will continue to be done in Washington, DC by economists from advanced nations.”

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  4. Amanda wrote:
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink
  5. Bill, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the circumstances of your departure from the Bank (thought I do miss you!). But I stick by my comment in the WSJ. To give a personal example, anyone can verify that I have published evaluations of WB projects showing that they did not achieve the impacts that they had promised. In one case it was a major, high profile, lending operation against rural poverty that I judged to be close to a failure in terms of its overall impact. Of course, research findings are often debated within the Bank, including positive findings about the Bank’s operations as well as the negative ones. But let me assure you that nobody has ever tried to stop me publishing my findings, or encouraged me to manipulate my research. And my experience is not unusual. Indeed, since your comment and my reply in the WSJ, a number of colleagues in the research department have told me that they found your comment surprising and agreed with my response. Martin

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Del wrote:

    Mr. Zoelick’s observations recalls to mind some of the approaches which the Bank failed to take at the time of the “Great 1987 Disorganization.” Some of us thought that the Bank might look at a couple of options for research:
    a) Give the Bank’s Economic Research Department a core endowment to go out on its own, with the possibility of also obtaining research contracts from other development assistance purveyors, or
    b) Totally outsource the research function to other research centers, e.g., Brookings, Thailand Development Research Institute, University Research Centers (including in developing countries) or consortia thereof, RAND Ciorporation, etc.
    Of course, the “clique” was not interested in such a transparent approach.

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  7. Vamsee wrote:

    FYI – Martin Ravallion’s blog post on the speech as well as the World Bank’s new research directions can be found here – https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/wholesaling-research-for-development

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  8. uglyreality wrote:

    Funny you should be debating censorship and democratizing research (and the necessary open debate that goes along with that research) with someone from the WorldBank, then just last week we had a rather heated debate on the Intranet about removing Anonymous comments. Most of us are against it because we fear retribution from managers for speaking out against the status quo.

    Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Paul wrote:

    Publishing all the World Bank’s economic research in peer-reviewed journals would help bring up its overall quality, which might also expand its reach.

    Posted October 1, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  10. RKimble wrote:

    I was a researcher before I joined the Bank some years ago. Now I am a Bank manager, who does projects and commissions studies (mainly of the PER, CEM, sector review variety). In my 10 years as a manager, no one has ever hinted to me (and I have never hinted to anybody working for me) that any conclusion in a project or a paper was off-limits. Of course there is the grinding intellectual conformity, and of course there is the nasty never-ending struggle for power, which damage honesty and limit debate, but they can be overcome We have recently had, for example, vigorous discussions about industrial policy, public agricultural banks, credit subsidies and other policies that have been out of fashion for years. We are even pursuing some of these things; I have found that if one compiles evidence and makes a strong case, then the confirmity of the institution can be defeated.

    Posted October 1, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  11. RKimble wrote:

    UglyReality is right about the reason to allow anonymous comments on the IntraNet.

    I have recently gotten to know a well-connected Professor from a large East Asian country. He says something about his country that is a good analogy to the WB:

    “In my country you can say anything you want … except you cannot criticize the party.”

    This is the WB – you can write what you want on any subject … except you cannot suggest that senior management is, or has ever been, wrong about anything.

    Posted October 2, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  12. quicksilversurfer wrote:

    Being an ex-WB staffer (country economist), I can vouch for the implicit pressures on controlling what one says,. And I am not even talking about publishing one’s opinion! As one who has pointed out the problems associated with a proposed loan in one of the reviews, I became well aware that management did not even try to counter findings through an alternative analysis but tacitly let one know that, if one knew what was best for his/her professional prospects, one should shut up or revise their input in a way that satisfied management. Not even a serious and healthy exchange of ideas within the confines of the WB units! So, I can imagine what it must be like for published views dissenting from the party line…

    Posted October 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

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  4. [...] where ideas are picked apart by other economists, works well, but World Bank researchers often make no attempt to publicize their findings, thus hindering the options for [...]