The Disciplinary Monopoly in Development Research at the World Bank

By Rao, Vijayendra; Woolcock, Michael | Global Governance, October-December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Disciplinary Monopoly in Development Research at the World Bank


Rao, Vijayendra, Woolcock, Michael, Global Governance


The World Bank's internal think tank, the Development Economics Research Group (DECRG), (1) is virtually unmatched in terms of the volume, quality, and impact of its work on development issues. Among other things, its staff publish in the most prestigious scholarly and applied journals; they help produce, analyze, and disseminate the household surveys used to determine whether global poverty is rising or falling; they work closely with client counterparts around the world to help establish datasets enabling policies to be designed and programs to be placed on the basis of a comprehensive evidence base; and they design rigorous assessments to discern the impacts of development policies and projects. For all these important accomplishments and contributions, however, DECRG falls short of its potential. By promoting economics as the sole lens through which to understand and respond to the development process, it restricts what is studied, delimits how those issues are analyzed, and thereby offers clients an unnecessarily narrow menu of policy options and strategies. In short, it has established a monopoly on development research, with most of the attendant distortions that economists, ironically enough, associate with monopolies.

Let us begin by stating the obvious: development is a diverse field speaking to virtually every aspect of human endeavor. As such, one might expect the core elements of this diversity to be reflected in the training of the Bank's research staff and the content of its research agenda. No single discipline can or should expect (or be expected) to be able to speak in an informed way to this diversity, yet at present all but a handful of the Bank's 100-plus research staff are economists. (2) Like any other discipline, economics is limited in its ability to pose and understand questions. This applies, we would argue, to issues within its domain, but it is more especially true of issues outside its domain. While economists have made a lot of progress in recent years in understanding key issues like institutions, collective action, and politics, the vast majority of noneconomist social scientists (and indeed many economists) would argue that areas of social, cultural, and political action are best studied by the social sciences that specialize (and thus have a comparative advantage) in these topics--namely, anthropology, sociology, political science, and psychology. Development studies, for example, is an important area of research in the noneconomic social sciences that has, over the years, provided key insights into areas that are of fundamental importance to the Bank, such as governance, participatory development, the understanding of well-being, and culture. As several influential scholars have shown, (3) development policy ignores these ideas at its peril. This oversight is especially unfortunate as the Bank finds itself becoming increasingly concerned with issues of governance, local development, and institution building.

This state of affairs in DECRG both reflects and perpetuates a disciplinary monopoly that manifests itself in the fact that development policy at the Bank tends to reflect the fads, fashions, controversies, and debates of one discipline. (This is deeply ironic, since a core tenet of economic policy is to point out the collective benefits that accrue from the absence of monopolies and barriers to trade.) The strengths and limitations of economics are mirrored in its policy prescriptions: on some issues (e.g., fiscal crises, assessment of broad project impacts), it is clearly best placed to provide key policy advice; but on others (e.g., culture, process evaluations, group dynamics, conflict), it has little comparative advantage. Competing perspectives from other disciplines are simply not available to refute (or, for that matter, endorse) the economists' viewpoint or to provide other key insights that are simply absent from the toolkit of economists (or are precluded--by the prevailing assumptions, priority setting procedures, and resource allocation mechanisms--from even being considered). …

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