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Surprising Results from the World Bank?

October 18, 2013

A few days ago I posted an article about the good progress being made by the World Bank, coming to terms with the difficulties inherent in supporting the right kind of progress in what the Bank calls Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations (FCS). I highlighted not only the good signs, but also some of challenges faced. On the same day Joel Hellman, the enlightened Director of the Bank’s Center on Conflict, Security and Development (CCSD) – the unit charged with supporting implementation of the 2011 World Development Report on the same theme – published a fascinating blog post, Surprising Results from Fragile States.

While my article was based on my impressions as an outsider, Joel’s was an insider’s empirically based comment on the interesting phenomenon that some of the Bank’s projects in FCS appear lately to have been more successful than those elsewhere. One of the comments added to Joel’s blog by a reader, notes that DFID has had similar findings. This seems to run counter to the received wisdom that development is harder in such contexts. So what is the explanation?

Joel identifies four hypotheses: projects in FCS are seen as “harder” so they are getting more time and attention; projects in FCS are simpler and smaller than projects elsewhere, so more feasible, because the level of ambition tends to be lower; project implementation is done differently in FCS, notably projects are often implemented more independently of the client government and its systems, so less entangled; and finally, that projects in FCS are evaluated to a different (lower) set of standards than projects elsewhere. Joel’s final point is that we need to find out more, and that his four hypotheses are a starting point for more debate and research.

This is an excellent example of the role of the CCSD in the Bank – leading and stimulating debate on critical issues linked to FCS. In his article Joel wonders aloud whether the Bank is implementing the right projects well in FCS, or simply implementing projects well. This is a critical point. It has been said many times over the years that all organisations are in some respects a hammer seeking a nail, i.e. they know what they do well and they seek opportunities to do it well. In my own criticism of the Bank and other international development organisations over the years I have used this metaphor many times. (Though to be fair, I have also consistently used it about the NGOs I have worked for too.)

The 2011 WDR, the establishment of the CCSD and aspects of its ongoing reforms all point to a recognition within the Bank of its need to adapt, to work more effectively in FCS. But it would be extremely worrying if this adaptation were to become an exercise in discovering the answer to the question “what can the Bank as we know it today, or with minor tweaks, do differently in FCS?” In other words, if the Bank adapts organically to accommodate fragility, as Joel’s hypotheses allow as one explanation for the phenomenon he describes.

The correct question is surely a different one, along the lines of “in what ways can fragility be reduced in FCS; in what ways can this be stimulated by international institutions; and is there a role in this process that the Bank could usefully play?” In other words, what tools, other than the hammer, are needed; which of these might the Bank learn how to use; and what internal changes would be needed to enable this? One of the themes of the Bank’s reform strategy is to become more of a “connector” than an implementor, and this seems very appropriate in the face of the many of the challenges in promoting resilience in FCS. After all, the Bank as an economic institution knows very well that it should only intervene when it has a competitive advantage vis as vis the outcomes which are desired. So in its quasi-monopoly position it needs to step aside with honesty and humility when it does not have such an advantage – since there are few other institutions which can outcompete it in the market.

This also has implications for the way the Bank describes and measures success. One of the next items in its ongoing reform process is the review of its measurement systems. As my colleagues at International Alert have written, all the Bank’s measurement systems – e.g. the Post-Conflict Performance Indicators framework (PCPI), IDA Results Measurement System and Scorecards – all need to be updated to reflect the latest thinking on reducing fragility and increasing resilience. I suspect Joel is right, that part of the explanation for better results in FCS is an organic moving of the goalposts – after all, that would only be human and the Bank is essentially a large collection of humans, despite what some of its critics sometimes say! It’s tremendously important that the Bank focuses very carefully over the next few months in making sure that its scorecards integrate fragility and resilience as mainstream factors – and not just for the obvious “Fragile States” because, after all, recent events have shown us that plenty of countries not previously listed as fragile (Egypt, Syria, Mali…) lacked sufficient resilience to avoid major outbreaks of violence. The scorecards need to reflect the goals and progress towards the goals, and the eradication of poverty and increasingly shared prosperity are only going to be sustainable if resilience is increased in FCS. So the scorecards need to reflect progress in that.

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