Notes, Memos, and other Rants

In light of the World Bank's new transparency and open information policies, this section contains notes and memos which were occasioned by World Bank internal debates (but which have been "sanitized" of specific references). 

Table of Contents


Getting the Bugs Out of the Knowledge Bank Idea. There are two quite different notions of how a development agency such as the World Bank could operate as a Knowledge Bank.  Ironically they correspond to the two different ways in which organisms learn: phylogenetic or ontogenetic learning.  In the first case typified by insects, the genes transmit the behaviors so the offspring are "hard-wired" with well-adapted behaviors for their typical environment.  For the higher animals such as humans, the genes transmit more the learning mechanism (rather than specific "learnings") so the offspring then learn by interacting with their environment.  This note argues that the World Bank should get the bugs out of its strategy for knowledge-based development assistance. (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

Mixing Truth and Power: Implications for a Knowledge Organization.  This guest editorial in the December 2001 World Bank Staff Association Newsletter served two purposes.  After the dissent-motivated departures of Joseph Stiglitz, Ravi Kanbur, and now Bill Easterly, even "the most casual observer" can begin to "connect the dots" and see that the Bank is having a problem handling dissent and criticism coming from internal sources.  This editorial traces the problem to the organizational stance of taking "Official Views" on the complex questions of development--thereby mixing power and truth to the detriment of the latter.  The problem is aggravated when the public relations staff "do their job" to see that staff researchers stay "on message."  The second purpose of the editorial is to further the creation of a public space within the Bank so that staff can publicly talk to staff about Bank issues independent of management control and censure.  The Bank advocates the creation of that public space to support civil society dialogue in its work so it would only seem proper to lead with its own example. (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

On Development Programs of Foundations and Other Aid Agencies.This is a memo written for foundation researchers to make a comparison between the work of aid agencies such as the World Bank and foundations with community development programs.  The argument centers on the helping-self-help conundrum and emphasizes the ideas of Ivan Illich and John McKnight on the disabling aspects of many conventional modes of "help."  Finally it briefly looks at the problems of learning and argues why in the field of development, the notion of a "learning organization" tends to be an oxymoron.

Must the World Bank have Official Views?  This note argues that for the World Bank or any other development agency to be a learning organization itself and to foster genuine client learning, it should learn a lesson from universities and not take "Official Views" on the controversial empirical questions of the day.  As we know from the debacle of making Lysenkoism into Official Soviet Science, nothing of scientific value is added to the evidence or logic by making a theory into an "Official View." Indeed, this does much to stifle learning both within the organization and by the clients. (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

From Sowing to Reaping: Improving the Investment Climate(s). This memo-paper aims to "complicate the discourse" about investment climate within the World Bank.  There are different investment climates for different groups and often improving the climate for one group will worsen it for another.  In particular, a better climate for external takeovers of enterprises will worsen the incentives for managers and workers to make the sort of human capital investment in their firms that can only be recouped by staying with the firms.  This is an example of a fundamental trade off between two Hirschmanian logics: the logic of exit (the quintessential logic of the market) and the logic of commitment, loyalty, and voice (the logic of organizations).  The two logics lead to two different strategies in the face of decline: throw out the old to create a tabula rasa and then bring in the new (replacement)?r transform the old into the new (transformation).  While the two strategies need to be combined in different ways for different institutions, they are not co-equal as two ends of a spectrum.  The combinations should take the form of transforming enough of the home-grown old into the new so that people will have the "footing" or basis to then be open to replacing part of their old by appropriating the external new.  Many if not most of the strategies of the international financial institutions for the developing world are based on remaking society using almost exclusively the strategy of replacement based on the market-oriented logic of exit. (Click on title to open memo or paper).

Notes on Control and "Ownership" Problems. There are organizational pressures in development agencies that lead project managers to take over more and more control of what should otherwise be the client's project.  This notes looks at how this organizational pressure for control crowds out the client's ownership of the project and thus leads to poor performance. (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

Notes on Institutional Reforms.  There seems to be a spectrum of institutional reforms.  On one end of the spectrum are stroke-of-the-pen reforms that are well-adapted to a social engineering approach enforced by aid and conditionalities.  On the other end of the spectrum are reforms (e.g., enforcing contracts, corporate governance, and, more generally, rule of law) where the parts that can be decreed by the government or passed by the parliament are only the tip of the iceberg.  The implementation of the reforms requires changes in the established habits of many people and that is a long-term proposition.  Too often development agencies mistake the "tip of the iceberg" for the whole reform only to discover years later that little reform actually took place.  This note outlines the problem and broaches approaches. (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

On the Strategic Model of the Knowledge Bank.  In any business such as "widgets," there are distributors and there are brokers.  The distributors will directly sell widgets to those who need them.  The brokers will connect those who need widgets with those who sell them.  The "knowledge business" is a good deal more subtle than widgets.  Instead of pretending to have knowledge to disseminate or distribute, this note argues that a knowledge-based development agency might better function as a broker connecting those who want to mount a certain reform with those who have actually implemented the reform successfully. (Click on title to open memo or paper.

Knowledge and Aid.  This note examines the practice of using aid to, in effect, "buy" learning and policy reforms. It includes a series of quotations from Albert Hirschman which conclude that the " picture of program aid as a catalyst for virtuous policies belongs to the realm of rhapsodic phantasy." (Click on title to open memo or paper.)

Professional Expertise versus Socratic Ignorance. This note contrasts, largely in a series of quotations, the model of a professional social engineer who "has the answers" and the model of the Socratic teacher who "doesn't have the answers." (Click on title to open memo or paper.)