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The Road to Hell?

Monday, December 4, 2006

The World Bank and IMF, for all their faults, are not that bad.

The Birth of Development: How the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Health Organization Changed the World, 1945-1965

By Amy L.S. Staples

One does not often read paeans to the efforts of World Bank officials, struggling valiantly to overcome the tyranny of national interest politics in the service of the developing world. Critics of such international institutions typically paint their protagonists as either soulless slaves to the interests of multinational corporations, or cynical apparatchiks who, though perhaps genuinely seeking to eradicate world poverty, tend to focus on achieving their goal “one consultant at a time”. It is refreshing, therefore, to read Amy L.S. Staples’s account of the early years of the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and World Health Organization (WHO), in which she argues that the birth of these specialized international institutions (SIIs) in the wake of the Second World War was a “majestic moment” which seeded “a revolution in expectations” about the international community’s obligations to pursue the well-being of all its members, rather than just the narrow national interests of the most powerful.

The Birth of Development documents the rise of a specialized corps of professional international bureaucrats, who—fired by a progressive faith in the transformative power of science and post-war internationalism—genuinely believed that they could change the world, and make real progress towards eradicating the scourges of poverty, hunger and disease. Building this corps was a major organizational challenge for the leaders of the young SIIs, and Staples tells the story of their early days struggling to assert their independence from national interests, particularly those of the U.S. and Britain. Yet despite the best of bureaucratic intentions (and whatever the pretensions of its subtitle) the book is more about how the SIIs failed to change the world than how they succeeded—the real promise of Staples’s project lies in illuminating possible explanations for this failure. Unfortunately, though it refutes the efforts to blame international bureaucrats or big business for these problems, Staples’s book is not sure where the fault does lie.

The focus of much of the book on case studies, rather than a comprehensive analysis of SII programs, makes it unsuitable for drawing general conclusions about the success or otherwise of the institutions concerned. The situation is not helped by Staples’s failure to articulate clearly what a reasonable standard of success might consist in; by an unfortunate, if understandable, tendency to focus on institutions’ reports and other “products” rather than on their impact; and by the fact that Staples is sometimes a little out of her depth when doing economic analysis. What the case study focus does allow is identifying how and why specific projects have succeeded or failed, and what general lessons might be taken from these experiences. Yet despite much promise, the book never quite manages to draw its various strands together into a coherent narrative, and one is left with the distinct sense that it has been an opportunity missed.

Staples sees the value of “bottom-up” development primarily in terms of solving the knowledge problem: local people are better placed to know what their own problems are.

The argument eventually advanced in the concluding chapter—in favor of “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” development initiatives—is not a new one. Nor does Staples’s analysis add any particular force to it. Indeed, the somewhat superficial contrast she draws between the widely perceived failure of the top-down WHO Malaria Eradication Program and the “success” of bottom-up ones like the Grameen Bank micro-credit effort, which was recognized after Staples’s book went to press with a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, reads almost as an afterthought. One gets the impression that this rather-too-perfunctory prescription may be more of a post hoc attempt to justify Staples’ extensive archival work than a natural conclusion from her efforts. Had she put as much effort into the analysis as into the primary research, it should have been possible to get beyond simplistic pronouncements of “bottom-up good, top-down bad”, to develop a more nuanced understanding of each model’s strengths and weaknesses, and to realize that many successful development efforts are unlikely to fit cleanly into one camp or the other.

One way to do this would have been to focus on how well each model solves the knowledge, capacity, and incentive problems involved in development—or more prosaically, how successfully each model allows people to determine what needs to be done, and ensure that the relevant actors are both able and willing to do it. Though the early SII professionals firmly believed that science would solve both the knowledge and capacity problems, and that they could overcome the intransigence of entrenched national interests, many SII programs ultimately faltered due to various combinations of excessive faith in scientific knowledge, a failure to develop local capacity, and an inability to remain aloof from the influence of national politics.

Staples appears to see the value of “bottom-up” development primarily in terms of solving the knowledge problem: local people are better placed to know what their own specific problems and priorities are, and how exactly potential solutions might work in the local environment. Yet her account of the problems faced by the World Bank and the FAO suggests another advantage that she seems to overlook: that “bottom-up” development, and in particular private entrepreneurship of the sort behind the various Grameen initiatives, can avoid many of the political constraints that might otherwise impede development efforts.

Nonetheless, far from suggesting that “bottom-up” development could render SIIs— as almost inherently “top-down” institutions—obsolete, this framework also points to some areas in which centralized approaches to development may work best. While local knowledge is clearly important, some useful knowledge is global. SIIs have an important role in leading, coordinating and disseminating research in their respective fields. Perhaps most crucially, “bottom-up” development relies on the capacity of the bottom to lift itself. Such capacity may not always exist—either because local institutions lack the necessary technical or organizational resources, or simply because the nature of the problem does not lend itself to purely decentralized solutions. In any case, given public bodies’ tendency toward inefficiency and distraction, there is an important place for the professional ethos and commitment that The Birth of Development rightly celebrates.


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