The World Bank is having a big internal debate about Power and Governance. Here’s why it matters.

July 26, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Writing flagship publications in large institutions is a tough job. Everyone wants a piece, as different currents of

Flagships sometimes run into trouble

Flagships sometimes run into trouble

opinion, ideology or interest slug it out over red lines and key messages. Trying (and failing) to write one for Oxfam once put me in hospital.

So no surprise that the flagship of flagships, the World Bank’s annual World Development Report, on Governance and Law, is currently experiencing some mid-flight turbulence. In an attempt to figure out what all the fuss could be about, I’ve luckily been able to read bits and pieces of an early draft.

I know NGO types aren’t supposed to say this, but it’s really impressive (don’t worry, I’ll get on to the weaknesses later). Coming from the Bank, it’s a major step forward, capturing, consolidating and mainstreaming elements of systems thinking, Thinking and Working Politically, Doing Development Differently etc. Examples: context specificity, path dependence, evolution, critical junctures, feedback mechanisms, the need for constant adaptation, how multiple actors interact to produce both intended and unintended consequences. The conclusion is that reformers should focus on strengthening the enabling environment, rather than pushing specific reforms.

A huge contribution is that it squarely locates power as a core issue both to understanding and influencing development. It identifies the ‘policy arena’ as the missing link between formal rules and development outcomes. The policy arena is where all the interesting stuff happens: where different groups bargain over cash, policies and

Maybe a bit more political analysis?

Maybe a bit more political analysis?

implementation. The arenas are both formal (parliaments, government departments) and informal (backroom deals, Old Boy Networks). The distribution of power (asymmetric or inclusive?) determine how policy arenas function and whether they produce good development outcomes, so reshaping those arenas in a more inclusive, effective direction becomes a core task for anyone working on governance and law.

This is good stuff (despite some caveats, below) and with luck, ‘Policy Arena’ could become the new euphemism du jour for power and politics, taking over from political economy, governance etc.

Other stuff I liked:

  • Really good, nuanced approach to China, a great improvement on the standard US political science view that China is really just an anomalous governance disaster waiting to happen (eg Acemoglu and Robinson).
  • Guarded optimism that when it comes to governance, turkeys regularly vote for Christmas (elites pushing through reforms that limit their power in order to stay in power, as political insurance for when they lose power, or to improve stability), and an excellent set of insights on why they do so
  • Good to see citizen engagement (including mobilization) as one of the key drivers of change, along with elite bargains and international influence.
  • I like its very political understanding of aid (others in Oxfam may disagree!) It argues that aid is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad for development. What matters is how aid interacts with prevailing power relations and impacts governance.

But of course, I wouldn’t be working for an NGO if I didn’t want it to go further:

In its preference for abstraction, it downplays how differently governance and law are experienced by different ce_moocdisenfranchised/excluded groups. Gender gets an occasional look in, but youth, ethnicity, disability, sexuality etc are all conspicuously absent from what I read despite their importance in the evolution of norms and legal systems. Trade Unions also appear, though as often as a problem, as an expression of empowerment.

Its understanding of power is limited/compartmentalized, with a focus on formal power (both de jure and de facto). There is no discussion of hidden/invisible power, or power within. It is pretty remiss not to mention Foucault, Lukes (or indeed Oxfam’s very own Jo Rowlands!) in a discussion of power.

Although it’s good to see a focus on citizen engagement, it seems very superficial – eg no discussion of granularity within social movements and I would hope to see more on civil society space.

Does this matter? Advocates tend to get agitated about whether the WDR reflects the Bank’s behaviour on the ground – not unreasonable given the gulf that often separates research and practice. But in my view that is not the right emphasis. The WDR is not intended as a manifesto, or description of Bank activities, but as a contribution to debate, both within the Bank and beyond. The research effort is awesome (apart from anything else, it is a great literature review, with fascinating case studies).

Safeguards-image-IAPWill it have much indirect influence, either within the Bank or more broadly? I’m a bit worried to be honest. Firstly, it depends on how much it is watered down in the current discussions within the Bank. But secondly, it is pretty inaccessibly written and this draft lacks the punchy diagram or memorable overall trope that could cut through to a wider public. Some WDRs have a big impact on policy thinking, and others sink without trace – I really hope this one doesn’t end up in the latter camp, because there is some truly valuable stuff in here.

Best outcome? The Bank’s bigwigs, from Jim Kim downwards, get behind this and the WDR emerges as good as/better than the current draft. Then the Bank gets together with other aid organizations and sets up an implementation unit/do tank to turn its analysis into concrete plans for doing development differently, and puts some resources behind trying them out, including making sure the Bank has enough staff to support such ideas (its capacity in this area seems to be on the downturn of late). Well you can always dream…..

Update: For governance geeks who find this all too superficial, the full 415 page draft is now in the public domain