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Back | Programme Area: Overarching Concerns

The World Bank as a Knowledge Agency

  • Authors: John Toye, Richard Toye
  • Programme Area: Overarching Concerns
  • Paper No.: 11
  • Code: pp-uoc-11
  • No. of Pages: 24


This paper claims that the production of social knowledge in all international organizations is problematic, because of their nature as a form of public bureaucracy. This general claim is advanced as a modification of Weber’s theory of bureaucracy. The modification points out the potential misalignment of the formal official hierarchy and the actual distribution of the means of power. This permits the emergence of a conflict between the aims of the disinterested researcher and the political neutrality imputed by Weber to the modern bureaucrat.

Section II turns to the World Bank (also referred to as the Bank) as a case study of the problems of managing social research inside an international public bureaucracy. It argues not only that managerial constraints exist on what the Bank is willing to publish, but also that the binding constraints on publication change over time, depending on managerial objectives and managerial competence in exercising editorial control over research output. These arguments are illustrated by the Bank’s research on the debt problem of the developing countries in the 1980s, and internal dissent on the Washington consensus in the 1990s.

Section III examines the evolution in managerial objectives at the Bank in recent years, and the factors that have influenced shifts in its rhetoric and policy. In the last decade, the Bank has had to adjust to a variety of pressures from its major sponsors, arising both from geopolitical events and from opposition to particular institutional modes of operation. Under these pressures the Bank has added to its liberalizing mission a “new development agenda”, which includes poverty reduction, improved governance and other non-governmental organization (NGO)–derived concerns.

This leads on to the underlying question of Section IV, which is whether the adoption of the new development agenda has brought about a fundamental transformation of attitudes at the Bank. Are we seeing signs of change, or only a change of signs? Recent research on the issues of poverty reduction, governance and conditionality (policy-based and process-based) are discussed in an effort to gauge how far the Bank has moved.

One may conclude that, not very surprisingly, the rhetoric of change has moved faster than the reality. Nevertheless, the Bank has taken significant new policy initiatives, in the attempt to respond to shortcomings in past attempts to instigate economic reform policies. The requirement that borrowers develop a national poverty reduction strategy, and do so in consultation with civil society was a bold move, which has met with limited success so far. At the same time, the advent of process conditionality does not seem to have replaced, or even much reduced, the use of policy-based conditionality.

John Toye is at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford University, and is a Senior Research Associate of Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford. His recent publications include Keynes on Population. Richard Toye is Lecturer in History at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of The Labour Party and the Planned Economy, 1931–1951. John Toye and Richard Toye are co-authors of The UN and Global Political Economy.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-816X
    From: UNRISD