Is there a new Washington Consensus? An analysis of five World Development Reports.

November 3, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Alice Evans earns my undying admiration (and ubergeek status) by casually revealing that she has read the last 5 WDRs on the day of their publication. Here she summarizes what they show about the Bank’s evolving view of the world.

A new Washington Consensus is emerging… It recognises complexity, context, learning by doing, politics, and ideas. Hitherto fringe perspectives have become mainstream – embraced by successive World Development Reports (WDRs). But what’s missing, and what still needs to be debated?

Given the WDRs’ substantial research budgets, widespread dissemination, and legitimacy, they shape the scope and nature of debates within the development community. I read each one on the day of publication. It’s a tradition of mine – like Christmas, but with infographics instead of crackers. Reflecting on the last four years, I see a pattern emerging.

Rejecting ‘best practice’, the World Bank now champions learning by doing, experimenting in country and iteratively adapting. That signals a major departure from homogenous, externally approved Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. Though we’d need to research if this ambition is reflected in a shift in World Bank project management.

Recent WDRs also emphasise politics: policy recommendations may not be heeded by actors with divergent interests. Desire to placate donors may yield ‘isomorphic mimicry’: the façade but not function of good governance. So, the Bank commends ‘working with the grain’; engaging with elite interests and ideologies; addressing collective action problems; building support for reform through inclusive dialogue.

This is excellent, legitimising a wider consensus. But I still have a couple of questions…

First, governments’ policy experiments are likely to reflect their priorities. For example, most Bangladeshi politicians are also garment factory owners – with vested interests in protecting business autonomy, curtailing state regulation, repressing labour, and restraining wage hikes. The WDRs may authorise experimentation, but perhaps wider political shifts are needed to motivate pro-poor experimentation?

The other HUGE elephant in the room is social movements. WDR2018 on Education mentions reforms in Chile, but omits widespread student protests. WDR2016 on ICTs focuses on external interventions and individual service users; neglecting how they might strengthen social movements. Likewise, WDR2015 on Mind, Society and Behaviour omits how collective organising has enabled poor and marginalised groups to gain self-esteem, reject pejorative stereotypes, critique inequalities, build solidarity, and catalyse government commitment to inclusive growth. Disregarding history, blinkered to indigenous protests, pretending there’s a peaceful pathway to all things good, WDR2015 exclusively refers to short-term ‘antipoverty policies and programs’, such as ‘self-esteem talks’ in Peru….?!

Finally, what about international inequalities, rich countries and global governance? The WDRs largely focus on low and middle income countries (LMICs), and the problems therein. For example, WDR2013 on Jobs explores how LMIC governments can strengthen private-sector led growth and job-creation. Recognising that working conditions in global production networks are rarely improved by voluntary corporate codes of conduct, the WDR2013 calls on LMIC governments to strengthen legal protections and improve compliance in country. This is important, of course. But it neglects these governments’ incentives to repress wages to attract global buyers.

Why this lacuna? Maybe it reflects Western dominance in the World Bank, groupthink, and resistance to self-critique? Perhaps it’s asymmetric confidence: widespread pessimism that we can change our own institutions, yet perennial optimism that reform is possible ‘over there’, if only we get the policies/ institutions/ politics right? Or maybe the World Bank assumes it only has influence in LMICs (not the UK, US and Germany), because it only provides financial support to the former? Here the Bank may be underestimating its influence. By focusing on reforms in LMICs, I fear that the WDRs narrow debates within the international development community, distracting attention from the need for rich countries to strengthen their commitment to global development.

So, in sum, it’s fantastic the WDRs champion politically smart, locally led iterative adaption and inclusive coalitions. But we also need to recognise the power of social movements (shifting norms, showcasing widespread resistance), and get our own houses in order.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to the wonderful David Evans, who provided astute comments on an earlier draft.

And for those who want to dig deeper, here is the previous FP2P coverage of WDR 2018 (education), WDR 2017 (governance and law), WDR 2016 (digital), WDR 2015 (mind and culture) and WDR 2013 (jobs). Must have been asleep when WDR 2014 (on risk) came out.