The "Knowledge Bank" and the Global Development Network

By Stone, Diane | Global Governance, January-March 2003 | Go to article overview

The "Knowledge Bank" and the Global Development Network

Stone, Diane, Global Governance

There are many research networks in existence but few so grand in design as the Global Development Network (GDN). Why has the World Bank devoted so much effort and so many resources to think tanks? Some of the answers lie in broader objectives of the World Bank to become the "knowledge bank." (1) The GDN represents one program to operationalize this policy discourse of knowledge. The network is designed to allow greater scope for "home-grown" policy, information sharing, and enhanced research capacity in and between developing countries for the coproduction of local, regional, and global knowledge. The World Bank and other sponsors of the network are promoting the creation and distribution of a global public good--knowledge. Stimulating the supply of both the quantity and quality of policy-relevant research aids the transmission of international "best practices."

Such laudable aspirations have been welcomed within the development studies community. Yet there are also concerns about the uncritical view of knowledge and the assumptions about how that knowledge is utilized. There is a rationalist tendency within the GDN that portrays (scientific) research as independent from its social context. Knowledge is utilized as an intellectual tool that allows rational policy actors to reduce and control uncertainty in decisionmaking and advance social progress. This is best captured in the GDN motto "Better research/better policy/better world." However, neither ideas nor the research that codifies them are neutral. Accordingly, in this article, I outline a specific form of power--ideational power--that is central to emerging patterns of global governance. Importantly, the impact of ideas or discourses or knowledge can be greatly magnified when in coalition with broader social and economic forces. Consequently, in the analysis, I draw on some policy network concepts to sugges t that creating knowledge and sharing research to promote development serves the interests primarily of the institutions advocating the knowledge agenda and the researchers in their orbit. "Knowledge for development" serves a particular kind of interest--that is, the cognitive interest of researchers in their professional regeneration and advancement into new institutional arrangements such as global policy networks.

Under the auspices of the GDN, research that is broadly supportive of open economies and free markets research has been produced and disseminated. Furthermore, it is created predominantly by development economists. Indeed, key objectives of the GDN are cast in the public goods language of economics. This does not mean that the GDN is in the hegemonic grasp of neoliberal economics. Knowledge is contested within the network. I focus in this article on GDN dynamics from mid-1999 when the GDN Secretariat was created in the World Bank until the third annual conference in Rio de Janeiro in December 2001, by which time the GDN had become an independent nonprofit organization.

The following discussion criticizes the public goods approach to knowledge for its apolitical assumptions about research utilization. It adopts three network concepts: epistemic communities, embedded knowledge networks, and transnational discourse communities. These provide not only differing interpretations of GDN activities but also tools to argue that World Bank-sponsored research is not policy neutral but represents a discursive or ideational form of power that helps set and sustain development agendas.

A Global Network for Development Research

In December 1999, the GDN was launched by the World Bank in cooperation with the UN; the governments of Japan, Germany, and Switzerland; seven regional research networks; and other private and public international development institutions. The three broad objectives of the GDN are to "create, share and apply knowledge." The network is intended to incorporate the research community of developing and transition countries more efficiently into development policy. …

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