The democratization of development
World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)
August 8th, 2011
01:30 PM ET

The democratization of development

Editor's Note: Dennis Whittle is president of the Whittle Group and was co-founder of GlobalGiving.orgThis post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Dennis Whittle – Special to CNN

When the World Bank's new headquarters was completed in the mid-1990s, ten years after I joined, its cavernous thirteen-story atrium space was deathly quiet.  There was an unwritten rule that staff did not linger there; we spent our time toiling away on expert analyses in closed offices, emerging occasionally for formal meetings but then retreating.  Visitors admitted to the atrium would be awed by its grandeur  - and many were intimidated into silence.

My, oh, my how the world - and the World Bank - have changed since then.  A couple of months ago, I went back to my old stomping grounds to witness an Apps for Development competition.  The Bank was holding an open competition to see who could come up with the best mobile phone apps using the Bank's storehouse of data.   Most of the finalists were scrappy young folks from both rich and poor countries around the world.  Not only was the Bank's atrium a beehive of activity, but there was even techno music pumping up the mood of the crowd before the announcement of the event's winners. 

The Apps for Development competition was just one event that heralded new thinking at the World Bank. Stephanie Strom recently wrote an article in the NY Times about how the Bank was opening its "treasure chest of data" for researchers and others around the world to use.

Another example is the Mapping for Development initiative that the Bank has undertaken in partnership with the Development Gateway.   More recently, the finance department of the Bank has piloted a site that will show who the recipients of the Bank’s money are and what the money is being used for, among other things. (The UNDP has also created an impressive open data portal for some of its activities.)  These examples are part of a broader trend in aid transparency led by a group called IATI.

Sharing data is a big step, but there is now a window of opportunity for the Bank to do something much, much bigger.    Bob Zoellick, the Bank's current president, recently talked in a speech about a "democratization" of development, where the Bank and other aid agencies would no longer pretend to have a monopoly on understanding problems and devising solutions. Bank experts would still have a great deal of technical expertise, but the role of Bank staff would shift.  Instead of trying to find and hire the elusive "best expert in the world on subject X," the Bank would hire very good experts who are also capable of hosting conversations among other experts, government officials, and regular citizens about the most pressing problems and the most viable potential solutions.

Read: More from the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

Hosting effective conversations is hard, and it may be the most in-demand skill at good aid agencies in the decade ahead.  If the World Bank can make progress in this area, the payoff for the entire aid field could be large, both in terms of finding effective policies as well as catalyzing more openness and accountability.   If regular people are able to comment on and even contribute to the design of World Bank projects, they are surely going to begin demanding the same treatment from their own governments.

The good news is that the best staff at the World Bank are leading the way.  A while back, some of my former colleagues hosted an informal all-day Saturday session for health officials in a Latin American country.  No ties were allowed, and there was no rigid agenda.  When I told one of the Bank conveners that I was sorry he had to work on a Saturday, he told me that it was one of the most productive days of his career. "For once, we did not give them a long lecture," he told me.  "We just served them pizza and kept the conversation headed in the right direction, injecting bits of information but not pressing our own views too hard."

As a result, the health officials swapped stories about what was working and what wasn't in their country.  They were able to be candid about their failures as well as their successes.  The conversation was not about What is the RIGHT answer? Rather, it was about What are some REASONABLE things to try in our country, and how can we best evaluate the results? The participants liked the experience so much that one of the officials hosted a similar session, with Bank help, for other countries in the region. The effort created a great deal of social capital that allowed successes and failures to be honestly shared, thereby speeding experimentation and improving feedback loops.

In the end, the World Bank is a bank: it has to lend money to generate the revenues needed to host such conversations on a wide scale.  There is good news here, too.  Following the conversations, the countries came to the Bank for loans totaling hundreds of millions of dollars to support the strategies they had devised.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dennis Whittle.

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Topics: Development • Innovation

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Sandra

    While it's terrific that the World Bank has opened it's data (and continues to add to the 'open' inventory), I definitely agree what is most impressive, is the overall message (and effort towards) engaging directly with civil society. The World Bank Finances (https://finances.worldbank.org, mentioned above) takes steps toward this by offering a space to interact (slice/dice) with disbursement information at the loan level or rolled up to whatever makes sense to you (country, project, your own portfolio). Best part? You can see what others have done with the data, comment on their work/cuts of data, embed their (or your) cuts/visualizations on your site/blog/etc. What's next? Here are some ideas that are bubbling up: http://blogs.worldbank.org/insidetheweb/node/568.

    August 9, 2011 at 6:59 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      This transparency allows us to see if there are skeletons in the closet. The World Bank under Bob Zoellick must have a tripple A credit rating. Its dollar bonds are sought after.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:53 am | Reply

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