There’s been a lot of interest in the imminent vacancy of World Bank President, with numerous suggestions of qualified individuals who should be on the list. This post looks at one particular aspect of the role which seems to be missing from most of this debate, and which should be high on the list of criteria for a successful future leader of the Bank.

I: The Official Views of ‘Development Churches’

David Ellerman, currently a visiting scholar at the University of California in Riverside, and World Bank Staffer for over a decade (where his roles including being senior advisor to the Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz), is one of the most original and innovative thinkers in development. In 2000 he published a paper entitled ‘Must the World Bank have Official Views?’ in which he argued that the Bank spent a lot of time and effort determining its Official Views on particular development issues, and that this practice undermined in efforts in a number of ways.

Specifically:

  • it impedes the open contesting of adverse opinions that is so crucial to the advancement of knowledge
  • it impedes the Bank as a learning organization since the overturning of an older view is all the more difficult if it has been branded and enshrined as an Official View
  • it impedes client countries being intellectually in the driver’s seat as they will inevitably be encouraged in a multitude of ways to accept an opinion because it is an Official View

(The fact that Ellerman wrote and published this while still at the Bank gives some indication of his intellectual courage – I don’t know the backstory so cannot say what impact this had on him personally or professionally.)

Ellerman expanded on this in a subsequent paper for Development in Practice Journal. Through its focus on Official Views, the World Bank and other aid agencies become, in effect, ‘Development Churches’:

“…giving definitive ex cathedra ‘official views’ on the substantive and controversial questions of development. As with the dogmas of a Church, the brand name of the organisation is invested with its views….”

Ellerman argues that in the face of these Official Views, adverse opinions and critical reasoning tend to give way to authority, rules and bureaucratic reasoning shaped by the hierarchies within the organisation. Moreover, these Official Views “short-circuit” and bypass the active learning capability of national and local actors, and substitute the authority of external agencies in its place.

…Once an ‘Official View’ has been adopted, then to question it is to attack the agency itself and the value of its franchise. As a result, new learning at the expense of established Official Views is not encouraged…”

II: Moving Away From Doing the Wrong Thing Righter

The conclusions of a recent, still draft study on the World Bank’s efforts in participatory development indicates that the issues Ellerman highlighted are still an issue within the agency:

Project structures need to change to allow for flexible, long-term engagement. Projects need to be informed more seriously by carefully done political and social analyses, in addition to the usual economic analysis, so that both project design and expected outcomes can be adapted to deal with the specific challenges posed by country or regional context… Most importantly, there needs to be a tolerance for honest feedback to facilitate learning, instead of a tendency to rush to judgment coupled with a pervasive fear of failure. The complexity of development requires, if anything, a higher tolerance for failure. This requires a change in the mindset of management and clear incentives for project team leaders to investigate what does and does not work in their projects and to report on it (emphasis added)

This general phenomena is not unique to aid agencies, of course. The late great Russell Ackoff, a systems thinking pioneer, used to argue that almost every problem confronting our society is a result of the fact that our public policy makers are doing the wrong things and are trying to do them ‘righter’.

The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.

Back in 2000, David Ellerman suggested a way of overcoming the addiction to Official Views, which involves presenting the following message to client countries, and then acting upon it:

“…To the best of our accumulated experience (which we deem to call “knowledge”), here is what works best in countries like yours. Why don’t you study these principles together with their corroboration to date, take a look at these case studies, contact these people who designed those reforms, set up horizontal learning programs with those best practice cases, and try some experiments to see what
works in your own country? After carrying out this learning process on your own, you might call us back if you feel we could help…”

III: Implications for World Bank Presidency Candidates: A Simple Questionnaire

Building on all of this, we might view the current candidates for the World Bank Presidency in a different, and hopefully useful, light. We need someone who can take Ellerman’s message and Ackoff’s philosophy make them part and parcel of the way the organisation works.

To test candidates suitability in this regard, we might sensibly ask them, and those who know of them, the following yes / no questions (which should take no more than fifteen minutes of their time).

  1. Does the candidates track record indicate they have the ability to be a leader who facilitates as well as one who directs?
  2. Is the candidate able to let go of the notion of selling to, or controlling, others using a set of predefined strategies and results? (Can they effectively manage the uncertainty and ambiguity that ensues?)
  3. Does the candidate instinctively seek out challenges to their institution’s  ideas and policies, and see their leadership role as catalysing ‘mutual learning’? (Does the candidate routinely present their viewpoints as ‘permanently provisional’ and ‘up for debate’?)
  4. Can they respectfully but purposefully elicit the insights, creativity, and wisdom from others? (Can they do this even when others disagree with them?)
  5. Can they encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue and debate as a route to experimentation and innovation?
  6. Are they courageous enough to say ‘I was wrong’, and enable their learning process to be public, to allow others in their organisation and more widely to follow suit? (Are they willing to hear about, and learn from, failure, even in high-profile programmes?)
  7. Can their leadership help diverse groups and constituencies accomplish the results that they want? (Are they willing to share the credit for successes with others?)

I would tentatively suggest that if we have ‘yes’ responses against most of these questions for a given candidate, we could be looking at a genuinely interesting appointment.

If we have mostly ‘no’s, then we should all get ready for another term or two of Official Views, and all that goes with them.

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Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. Thanks Ben for the great use of the arguments about Official Views. I also used the late great Russell Ackoff in my *Helping People Help Themselves* book where all these and related views were developed at more length.
    As to the consequences of making these arguments while in the Bank, let’s just say that, in spite of a decade at the Bank, I was never made a regular staff member and remained what is called “fixed-term staff” until retirement. Stiglitz renewed my three-year contract during his stint at the Bank. That carried me a couple of years into Nick Stern’s tenure. While Nick was hardly a defender of internal dissent, as evidenced by the shameful Bill Easterly affair, it was easier for him to put me off into a side office and tell me not to make trouble. That’s when I wrote the Helping book. Ironically, because Bill was regular staff (i.e., had “tenure”), Nick and the other worthies in the management felt “something had to be done” about Bill since he (unlike me) wasn’t going away in a few years.

    Reply
  2. Ben – good post about the problems with “Official views” an issue which affects all public sector organizations to some extent.

    Of course organizations do need to have official positions and policies so that external organizations and individuals know where they stand and how to interact with them, and so employees know the framework in which to carry out their work. The challenge is how rigidly these positions are applied (or how much they allow flexible application based on context or to encourage innovation and learning, and how much dissent is tolerated), and in how quickly they change in the light of new evidence, experience and changing circumstances.

    In terms of the World Bank presidency, the questions you ask and characteristics you propose are all very valuable in a potential candidate. At the same time for most institutions (don’t have direct experience of the Bank) it takes much more than a change of leader to change the organizational culture. It’s a good start – but far from being a guarantee of success.

    Reply
    • Really, organizations need to have “official views”?? So you think each public university should have its official views in each field. Great theory about how to promote intellectual progress!!
      And you say the “challenge” is to change these views in light of new evidence–even though those in power got there by espousing those views in the name of the organizations. “Challenge” indeed! Max Planck famously quipped early in the 20th century, that (even) physics only changes funeral by funeral. You think bureaucrats in public orgs will do better in the softer fields than physics!
      There are many ways for aid organizations to function and to function better without taking “Official Views”. One could write a whole book on the topic.

      Reply
      • @david I’m probably not expressing myself very well.

        I wasn’t meaning that all public organizations need to have official views about everything, If an organization is solely engaging in research or in fostering knowledge sharing and debate then I wouldn’t see a need for official positions.

        At the same time if aid organizations engage in advocacy work whether with governments, populations or whoever then they need some common basis for this that has been discussed and agreed within the organization. (although you can certainly take issue with the process under which this view is often arrived at).

        I don’t think this means that individuals in those organizations shouldn’t be encouraged to hold and express other opinions, nor that there needs to be some mechanism to allow new information to be incorporated into policy more quickly and in a way less driven by politics or rank.

  3. Indeed: the ” official view” is a real problem. The World Bank, and donor countries, should not really have an official view on what technical solution should be used, they only should have a process in place to pick in a decent way a fitting practice based on outside information.

    e.g. I think cash transfers are really an important tool for humanitarian intervention, but why should DFID and the ECHO make it part of their ” official view” ?

    Reply
  4. […] gospel Aid on the Edge of Chaos’s Ben Ramalingam argues the World Bank must stop being a “Development Church” that promotes economic dogma if its client countries are ever going to be “intellectually in […]

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  5. Hey Ben. For what it’s worth, my rule is this: never ask a candidate/applicant if or how they can/would do something. Ask them to give examples of when they did it. As to official views and positions, in addition to their stifling effect there is also their cost — acrimonious days and days of egos battling to formulate and impose the view. Or, to avoid all that, opting for the lowest common denominator approach, essentially saying nothing in order to get a thumbs up from the widest number of people. – Marc

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  6. Surely the interesting question is not whether or not organisations like the Bank need to have Official Views, but why they tend to have them, i.e. what institutional function they play, especially, as the Ellerman analysis shows, they might get in the way of the organisation being more effective. Another way of looking at this is the “learning organisation” problem – prettty much all organisations these days say they want to be “learning organisations”, but most actively prevent learning, or at least slow it down. The other interesting thing is that in many cases, organisation practice doesn’t coincide well with the Official View – in the Bank case you just have to look at conditionality, which is supposed to be a Good Thing, but in practice is often bent and fudged so as to keep the cash flowing (e.g. see Ravi Kanbur on his experience as CR in Ghana) . So it can’t all be about the bureaucratic need for employee supervision and a performance benchmark. Having worked a lot in INGOs that suffer from the same thing, I think it’s probably to do with an organisational belief, partly supported by evidence, that if you want to convince others, you have to repeat the same message many times in a disciplined way. It worked for New Labour, it worked for the Jubilee debt relief campaign. The problem, of coures, is that there is no guarantee that the message is right.

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  7. […] the dimming prospect of a BRIC candidate, development consultant Ben Ramalingam offers something a little different. Drawing on work by former Bank staffer and academic David Ellerman he argues that a problem with […]

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  8. I agree with your remarks, even I think that there are big political pressures on who will be elected. I consider it very unpleasant that the brightest minds are never elected because they are not suitable for the US representatives.

    On the other hand, it is obvious that people like prof. Stiglitz, who are strongly opposing the policy of the US government (as with his definition of Privatizing Profits, Socializing Losses), are unlikely to be elected as the representatives of such organizations

    Reply
  9. […] paradigm to paradigm, with scant attention to evaluations coming too late or leading to doing the wrong thing righter. More importantly, there is a also preference for political re-engineering instead of just […]

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  10. […] Ramalingam posted an interesting blog some time ago on whether organizations need “official positions” on policy […]

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  11. OK – I finally had time to put my thoughts about this down on blog. I still think that despite the many real problems official views can cause, they are a necessary evil – here’s why, together with a few thoughts on how to make the process less “bad” http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/whats-your-official-position/

    Reply

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a freelance consultant and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.

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Accountability, Evaluation, Influence, Innovation, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Public Policy, Strategy