Rethinking development for our era of disruption and division

opinion December 11, 2017 01:00

By Andrew Sheng
Special to Asia News Network

2,186 Viewed

Given massive social divisions and the disruption from technology, what is the new development model? 

As the newly formed Commission for Global Economic Transformation gets down to work under its Nobel Laureate co-chairs Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Spence, we should reflect whether emerging markets are able to formulate a new development model.

The World Bank is the globe’s top development funder, while its World Development Report (WDR) is an opinion shaper for the future of development. This analytical effort is our largest group-think on development issues, overseen by the World Bank chief economist aided by a team of over 100 staff and consultants. It is an annual stock-take of the latest thinking and experience on development issues and policy. 

The World Bank is part of the economics establishment, since it hires the best and brightest of economists from the top universities. But if the economics profession is blind to its own blindness, then the bank also suffers the same fate. A recent blog review of the last five WDRs, however, suggests that a new Washington Consensus is emerging ( Gone are the idealist and perfectionist models of free markets. Instead, the World Bank has embraced complexity, context, learning by doing, politics and ideas – all from major reviews of the economic profession since the global financial crisis hit in 2007/8.

Indeed, a review of the last decade of WDRs suggests that the bank has made significant mental shifts about the whole development process. After a separate review of 30 years of development thinking in 2009, the WDR that year launched an influential report on economic geography, reminding everyone that the world is not flat, and geography shapes destiny. 

In 2010, the WDR presciently pointed out that climate change would disproportionately hurt emerging markets and thus required urgent attention. The next WDR looked at conflict and security, as fragile states continue to fail because weak institutions cannot cope with the combined stresses of conflict, security, corruption, justice and jobs. 

In 2012, the bank addressed the issue of gender in development. Since women generally make up half of the population, it seems common sense that a higher proportion of women in the labour force, with equal pay, would increase growth in incomes. But women face different forms of discrimination that deter development.

In 2013, the bank tackled jobs, finding that unemployment and job expectations among youth are the most urgent of policy priorities. In the last two years, this has emerged as one of the top political concerns arising from the impact of robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence on lower-skilled jobs. 

After looking at risk management in 2014, which was clearly overlooked in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the bank took an unusual step in looking at “Mind, Culture and Behaviour” (MCB). Moving out of the comfort zone of economics into psychology and other social sciences, the WDR team used the three principles of human decision-making: thinking automatically, thinking socially, and thinking with mental models to argue that policymakers can advance development by thinking beyond economics. The MCB report never got the serious attention it deserved, mainly because it was outside the reductionist mental model of mainstream “Rational Expectations” economics. 

In the last three years, the bank has tackled the issues of Digitisation (2016), Governance and the Law (2017) and most recently, Learning (2018). The issue of using technology to accelerate development is not new, and the way rapid innovation and advances in technology are making old work processes obsolete is becoming more obvious every day. 

In the issue on governance, World Bank president Kim Jim Yong asked the right question: Not “what is the right policy?” but “what makes policies work to produce life-improving outcomes?” By moving out of a purely technical analysis of development into the political economy of how to arrive at the right choices and implement them effectively, the bank has finally accepted that the world is a complex adaptive system, in which there are no optimal outcomes.

The latest WDR on learning lies at the heart of development. And yet, education and learning is defective in many societies, keep large numbers in poverty and hopelessness. Many countries spend huge fortunes on education, but the results are not always ideal. This WDR report, led by World Bank chief economist Paul Romer (famed for his work on human capital, innovation and knowledge), was marred by controversy over its writing style, which led to Romer being stripped of his post as leader of the research group. 

My quarrel with World Bank reports are aligned with Romer’s – they are too long, too technical and try to sanitise everything. When an executive summary is itself nearly 50 pages long, the reader is lost and misses the big picture. Practitioners in development know that most governments are lucky to implement three major initiatives in their four to five year terms. The need to focus and prioritise is critical to policy formulation and delivery. 

Indeed, the elites have lost trust with the populace by promising too much but not delivering enough. The current wave of populist revolts basically reflect their sentiment that current thinking perpetuates the interests of the 1 per cent at the expense of the 99 per cent. The verbiage in the World Bank reports disguise the truth that its member countries are having serious problems delivering for the 99 per cent. That requires the bank to speak truth to power.

But this cannot be done as long as the bank’s resources are running short, since it is also losing money (net loss of Bt7.73 billion in fiscal 2017) without sufficient capital increases from its shareholders. This is problematic at exactly the time when sound analysis and advice is necessary in a confusing development world.

In the past, all roads led to Rome. Today, you don’t have to go to Washington to find development ideas. That alone means the path of development thinking has changed profoundly.


Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.