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Overarching Concerns Programme Paper 11: The World Bank as a Knowledge Agency

4 Jan 2006

  • Authors: John Toye, Richard Toye


When considering how social knowledge is used in making policy decisions in international organizations, it is all too easy to start from the conviction that certain organizations have a negative (or positive) impact on developing countries. Demonizing some international organizations while idealizing others is undoubtedly a very popular pastime, but it is one that generates more heat than light. The production of social knowledge in all international organizations is problematic, these authors claim, because of their nature as a form of public bureaucracy.

The World Bank is used as a case study of the problems of managing social research inside an international public bureaucracy. The authors argue not only that managerial constraints exist on what the Bank is willing to publish, but also that the binding constraints change over time, depending on managerial objectives and managerial competence in exercising editorial control over research output.

This assertion leads to an examination of 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 authors state, 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 social concerns.

But has there been a fundamental transformation of attitudes at the World Bank? Are we seeing signs of change, or only a change of signs? Recent research on the issues of poverty reduction, governance and conditionality are discussed in an effort to gauge how far the Bank has moved. The authors conclude that the rhetoric of change has moved faster than the reality.

John Toye is at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford University, and is Senior Research Associate of Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford. Richard Toye is Lecturer in History at Homerton College, University of Cambridge.

Order UOC PP 11 from UNRISD, 14 pages, 2005; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.