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Can we get the World Bank to say the D- word?

UPDATE 10/12 1PM: we have a winner! (see end of post)

UPDATE: No winnners yet, see end of post.

Following last Friday’s post on the New Yorker profile of Justin Lin, I had this email exchange with the World Bank media officer David Theis, who kindly responded promptly to my inquiries.

Original Inquiry Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 11:30 AM:

David Theis
Media Chief, World Bank

Dear Mr. Theis, As I am sure you are aware, the current New Yorker has a profile of {World Bank Chief Economist} Justin Lin, especially his advocacy of an authoritarian development model. Does this reflect World Bank policy? In other words, is it official World Bank policy to endorse the authoritarian approach to development? If not, does the World Bank endorse instead a democratic approach to development? or does it simply take no position? Many thanks, Bill Easterly

Reply Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 12:29 PM:

Bill, No, we are not advocating an authoritarian development model. In fact, Bob Zoellick’s recent speech at Georgetown University ( is entitled “Democratizing Development Economics.” Many thanks. David

My follow-up question Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 1:15 PM:

David, thanks so much for being so responsive. If you don’t mind, a follow-up question. Mr. Zoellick’s speech you mention is using “democratizing” in a different context. He does not bring up the issue of democratic vs. authoritarian regimes in developing countries. So when you say that you are “not advocating an authoritarian development model,” I am unclear whether you are saying you are against this model, or whether you are neutral. Could you please clarify? Many thanks, Bill

His reply Sat, Oct 9, 2010 at 9:55 AM:

Bill, I believe “we are not advocating an authoritarian development model” is quite clear. Thanks. David

Bonus Reader exercise: find the word Democracy on any official World Bank website, or in any speech by Mr. Zoellick, or in any other official report authored by the World Bank.  The winner will receive two free tickets to the launch of the World Bank’s new Policy Research Report: “D#m#cr#cy: Not Advocating Its Savage Repression.”

Footnote: I also corresponded with David Theis on another question in the same series of letters that remains a bit unclear , and will be featured in a future post.

UPDATE: 3:30 pm no convincing winners yet as far as the World Bank offering an official embrace of Democratic Values, as opposed to isolated reports by individual authors and a few stray Zoellick remarks. You have got to do better, guys!! Or is it impossible?

UPDATE 10/12 1PM: We have a winner…

…except in reverse. Since nobody was able to provide a compelling example of the World Bank affirming democratic values, Aid Watch decided to give the prize to David Ellerman for his piquant comment that he was once forced to substitute the word “participation” for “democracy” in a major World Bank speech. This allows Aid Watch to selflessly quote its own previous posts deriding participation as a meaningless buzzword , which goes all the way back to colonial times and was therefore not seen as inconsistent with even Imperial Autocracy.

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  1. Adam Baker wrote:

    Devious, devious. It’s always difficult when it’s unclear whether the interlocutor is avoiding the issue or simply not understanding it.

    Is the Aid Watch assumption/position that democracy leads to good governance?

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:04 am | Permalink
  2. DRDR wrote:

    Here it is in a Zoellick speech from Sept. 2009: “NAFTA offered a fundamental reorientation of Mexico, including toward democracy and potentially deeper integration of North America”

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink
  3. Reuben wrote:

    “building the institutions of democracy” (Part 1, 5:49)

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  4. Reuben wrote:

    Of course the bigger question is whether it is actually the World Bank’s job to advocate democracy, or should it just stick to development (if in fact the two can actually be disentangled)?

    I would submit that this website has actually made one of the most convincing cases that the two are best treated as separate issues:

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:16 am | Permalink
  5. joe wrote:

    Ha, that told you, Bill.

    I have been doing some extensive and careful research, as a result of this, I offer you this photographic evidence of the existence of the word ‘democracy’ on the world bank website:

    I’ll not spoil the fun by telling you what the first result in the list links to.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink
  6. Will wrote:

    I was surprised to see how difficult it is to find anything about democracy in his speeches and writings. I have mixed feelings about that.

    I would guess (read: ” I am completely ignorant but am going to say this anyway”) that to encourage participation they have to keep democracy-speak muted. I am not privy to the degree to which this is negotiable, but if the question were put to me: “either you agree to restrict your support of democratic institutions, or we walk,” I would have a hard time making the call.

    I am as much a critic of authoritarian regimes as you could hope for, but I am not sure that the WB is necessarily the best forum for that debate. It seems like you could at least have alternative opinions about where and when to draw a line in the sand, and not be completely irrational one way or the other.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  7. UglyReality wrote:

    Democracy is all over the World Bank, perhaps you could be more specific in how you want the Bank to use the word?

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  8. When I was speech-writer for Joe Stiglitz as Chief Economist of the World Bank, I wrote a speech-paper originally entitled “Democracy and Development” for a big shindig in February 1999 hosted by then Korean President Kim Dae-jung and called “International Conference on Democracy, Market Economy and Development” and attended not only by Stiglitz but WB President Wolfensohn and Amartya Sen. But by the time of the conference, I was forced by the PR bureaucrats to essentially use “find and replace” to substitute the word “participation” for the word “democracy” throughout the text for fear that it might upset the host (in spite of the word “Democracy” being in the title of the conference). The paper under the title “Participation and Development” was among the nine selected for the collection: Chang, Ha-Joon, Ed. 2001. Joseph Stiglitz and the World Bank: The Rebel Within. London: Anthem.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always found Stiglitz’ pro-governmentallity speech fascinating in a strange way

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Fascinating as in claustrophobic sort of.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  11. William Easterly wrote:

    Sceptical Secondo:

    were you being ironic in citing the speech of someone later fired by the World Bank?

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  12. Irony works with the Prebisch speech in may ways. Not sure which one I was aiming at really.

    ‘Ironically’, mode of government (as in democracy) is outside the bank’s mandate – as opposed to mode of government (as in every other imaginable way) is quite okay.

    I thought you’d know

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  13. However, my best entry for the competition would be to turn to the documents of the Bank’s Social Development Department. Several of the “Sourcebooks” aren’t far off for example.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  14. William Easterly wrote:

    Many of you commented that Democracy is outside the Bank’s mandate and/or comparative advantage.

    I think the Bank already violates the “mandate” in either (1) supporting authoritarian governments with “budget support”, (2) intervening in weak states. Compared to that, saying “democracy” seems like not so much to ask. And just saying it doesn’t mean you have to try to force it on the recipients, which I agree (see numerous posts) is a bad idea.

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  15. Although I have no problem with beating up on the World Bank, I think a more relevant question is whether or not Aid-Watch really diverges from the standard neoclassical economics position of classical liberalism which sees no moral necessity in having democratic government.

    In the context of development, this question comes to the foreground in Paul Romer’s charter cities ideas and in Patri Friedman’s ideas (true to his father, David, and grandfather, Milton) about letting a thousand nations or city-states bloom—all of which attaches no moral requirement to the cities or city-states being democratic so long as there is free entry and exit so that any non-democratic form of government would be based on consent (e.g., Hong-Kong or Dubai).

    There is a fundamental intellectual/moral flaw in classical-liberalism (= right-wing libertarianism) which is well represented in Nozick, Romer, and the Friedmans. The flaw lies in taking the fundamental question in social philosophy as consent-vs-coercion, ignoring or forgetting the fact that from Antiquity down to the present, there has been a sophisticated defense of non-democratic govt and even forms of slavery based on consent and contracts. Consent is, of course, necessary but is hardly sufficient. The alternative theory lies in the notion of inalienable rights which are rights that may not be alienated even with consent. The theory of inalienable rights descends essentially from the Reformation (e.g., Luther’s notion of the inalienability of conscience) down through the Enlightenment (especially Spinoza and Hutcheson) in the democratic and abolitionist movements, but has been almost entirely lost in recent times.

    Some liberals are democrats but my point is that classical liberalism per se sees no moral necessity in democratic governance at all. Most modern libertarians are not “against” democracy; it is nice if you have it (and it works well with safeguards) but it is also OK if you don’t have it but have a consent-based non-democratic governance regime with good rules where democratic voice is replaced by the possibility of exit, e.g., Romer’s charter cities or Patri Friedman’s seasteading cities.

    Anyone who has studied economics is also familiar with this lacuna in normative economics where the notion of Pareto optimality (allocative efficiency) is totally silent on the issue of democracy. Ordinary neoclassical economics is even silent on the question of whether the Pareto optimal state was obtained by the free activity of individuals in the market or by the “gropings” of socialist technocrats who could mimic the market (e.g., Barone and Lange). At least Austrian economics (most prominently Hayek) went beyond the bare bones of technocratic efficiency to emphasize the importance of how the reallocations were made (by the free activity of people or bureaucratic directives) although even that debate was often miscast as a debate about local knowledge (as if market-mimicking socialism would be OK if, with advances in computers, the local knowledge could really be aggregated).

    This debate within economics circles is all still about the market and eschews any normative analysis of the firm or other organizations other than the classical liberal notion of a consent-based regime of governance (democratic or not)–which goes back to my original point that classical liberalism per se is silent on the question of whether consent-based governance (with real exit) is democratic or not.

    As an instance, let me quote from a recent Internet debate with a classical libertarian who agreed with the above characterization of the classical liberal and standard economic view of democracy. It is always a rarity in an Internet debate (or any debate) when the other side agrees with your characterization of their position. I will quote from his reply at some length to flesh out his position.

    [Start of quotation] * * * *
    “Well said, David. I completely agree. …If a governing entity creates an environment in which children are healthy and flourishing, then why should I care about the structure of the governing entity? It is certainly the case that some democracies have been good for children, but it is also the case that some non-democratic regimes have provided better lives for children than have some democratic regimes.”

    “While it is perfectly clear that institutions that allow entrepreneurial capitalism to flourish result in prosperous societies that are good for children, it much less clear the extent to which the ritual of majoritarian electoral processes necessarily lead to improvements in the lives of children. If I can make my child’s life better by working in non-democratic Dubai, why shouldn’t I leave a democratic Kenya? Or if I can make my child’s life better by working as an illegal alien without citizenship rights in the U.S., why shouldn’t I leave behind my citizenship rights in a democratic Mexico so that I can make my child’s life better? ”

    “Suppose we create non-democratic charter cities that can absorb the entire population of, say, Kenya, so that anyone left struggling to obtain electoral power there remains there by choice. Is everyone who left somehow at fault because they left to create better lives for their families? Did they have some kind of moral obligation to remain within the boundaries of Kenya because participation in democracy is a necessary moral commitment? …”

    “I am largely agnostic regarding governing processes. As we let a thousand nations bloom, we will see diverse governing processes which transcend our existing categories of “democracy” and “non-democracy.” The Athenian “democracy” praised by Pericles, in which representation was based on lot, was given a modern spin in William F. Buckley’s quip that he would rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. … David Friedman, in this witty short essay ( on why even a socialist would prefer “Capitalist Trucks” to socialist trucks, notes the similarities between governments, which libertarians find suspect, and private condominium associations, which libertarians tend to approve of. Friedman’s perspective is simply pragmatic: even a socialist would prefer capitalist trucks because they work better – it is a non-ideological decision.”

    “Thus for me as well, governance should not be an ideological decision. If you subscribe to a moral philosophy in which democracy (however you happen to define it) is a moral necessity, I’m more than happy to let you live there. If your democracy works well, I may come join you. If [someone else’s] works better, I’ll go live there. If there is some other regime that doesn’t meet your criterion of “democracy” but it works better for me, I’ll live there. For me, this is what Nozick’s “Utopia of Utopias” ( ) is all about, and I’m all for it.”

    “What I don’t understand is why everyone on earth should be forced to live under the same governance system. Are we that certain of both moral theory and the moral implications of various governance structures that we are ready to dictate to the world that one species of governance is morally required for all of humanity in perpetuity?”

    * * * [End of quotation]

    Thus the interesting question is: does Aid-Watch fundamentally disagree with this classical liberal position of letting a thousand charter cities bloom—with democracy having no morally necessary role? And if Aid-Watch does not fundamentally disagree, then why the beat-down of the World Bank which is only following this standard position of economics and classical liberalism on the issue of democracy?

    Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  16. Marc Maxson wrote:

    Very snarkily written, but valid point.

    Maybe that’s why I get blank stares when I say GlobalGiving’s evaluation system is about applying the model of democracy to an NGO network. Sure democracy fails, but not as much or as often as the alternatives.

    Next assignment Bill: Explain the different nuances between “accountability” and “authenticity”? I’ve seen grants seeking the latter propping up lately.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  17. William Easterly wrote:

    David, I sympathize — a lot of economists are more tepid about democracy than I would have expected. I think part of the problem is one of definition and associations — does democracy mean that the majority has a right to have their government do anything ithey want: obviously not if it violates other aspects of democratic values, like protection of minority rights.

    As far as the test question of whether I morally affirm democratic values, I pass.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  18. Harold wrote:

    why do you insist so much on relating Democracy to Development?

    According to Becker’s latest blog post, as long as Autocracy is managed by “visionary” leaders, Autocracy is a more effective way to achieve development.

    see blog-post here:

    Of course, the missing point in Becker’s argument is where can we found those “visionary” autocrats! Fortunately, he suggests that they are located in China.

    Thank you,


    Posted October 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  19. Vivek Nemana wrote:

    @Harold: For all the good that a visionary autocratic leader could bring as opposed to a visionary democratic leader (which I disagree with in the first place), a corrupt autocratic leader can do that much worse. See Bill’s post on the mystery of the benevolent autocrat. There’s an extremely high variance of growth rates among autocracies, and so the biggest successes and worst failures have been in autocratic countries.

    Plus growth happens in spurts, and China’s ‘visionary autocratic growth’ is just that: another spurt.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  20. Karen Hudes wrote:

    Let me preface my comments with the disclosure that I was fired from the World Bank for blowing the whistle on an inaccurate evaluation of a project in the Philippines. I would be more specific if I could retrieve my notes, but recall research that correlated economic growth not with democracy, but with something else frequently present in democracies–civic engagement, or the right to form civil society organizations. Sorry for not being able to put my hands on the research at the moment.

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  21. Bill (and David Ellerman too): In World Bank-land, the idea of participation was never even implicitly used as substitute for democracy. It was instead a bad substitute for another ill-defined concept, i.e. “ownership” (as I pointed out here in 2004 or so (7 Deadly Sins in a book Bill E edited). That was before “governance” got popular. In those good old days “ownership” (of structural adjustment reforms) boiled down to government organizing meetings of NGOs and other members of civil society to make wish lists. .! . . .

    Posted October 12, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  22. DevelopmentWatcher wrote:

    Hello, there. I just wanted to add this segment from a New Yorker Profile a few years ago on then-President of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz:

    “Many of Wolfowitz’s critics suspect that his motive in fighting corruption is political rather than economic. “I think he was completely genuine in the notion of bringing Western-style democracy to Iraq, the Middle East, and other areas,” Dennis de Tray said to me. “That hasn’t changed. He’s still committed to that agenda, and I think he sees the bank as another instrument to achieve what I see as long-held goals. The focus on ‘corruption’ and ‘good governance’—for him, those are code words for democracy and human rights. He knows he can’t use those words publicly, because the bank’s charter says we can’t engage with politics. But he goes pretty close by saying we are not going to deal with corrupt regimes anymore.”

    When I asked Wolfowitz about the criticism that his agenda at the bank is political, he said, ‘I just don’t see how anyone can separate concern about good governance from concern about helping poor people survive and get a good education and good jobs. It’s all part of the same thing. There is no political agenda here. Any country that uses our money well—measured not by political standards but by what that country is doing for the poor—gets our support and will continue to get our support.'”

    Read more

    It seems to me that even Wolfowitz had a difficult time expressing the “D” word during his time at the World Bank.

    Posted October 15, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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