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.
- 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).
- Does the candidates track record indicate they have the ability to be a leader who facilitates as well as one who directs?
- 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?)
- 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’?)
- Can they respectfully but purposefully elicit the insights, creativity, and wisdom from others? (Can they do this even when others disagree with them?)
- Can they encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue and debate as a route to experimentation and innovation?
- 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?)
- 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.