World Development Report 2011 – old habits die hard

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What makes the World Development Report 2011 an interesting read is not so much what is said but that it is the World Bank saying it, argues Finn Stepputat and Louise Riis Andersen (DIIS) in a new article on NAI Forum. The report suggests a growing awareness of the importance of politics and context. Yet, the report remains firmly within the confines of the security-development nexus and the Liberal Peace thesis that has dominated international policies for the past two decades, they write

A small step for mankind

– but WDR 2011 is a big step for the World Bank

By Finn Stepputat and Louise Riis Andersen, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)

Summary
For those who have followed the debate on ‘fragile states’, the WDR 2011 contains few new ideas and insights. What makes the report an interesting read is the fact that it is the World Bank saying it; the WDR 2011 suggests an important shift in the WB approach to the analysis of violence, conflict and fragile situations.

It underlines that economics is not everything, pointing to the importance of injustice, identity, ideology, respect, political motivations and other factors. It is more realistic about the nature and timescale of reforms and development which are seen as profoundly political rather than just technical fixes. And it considers more the importance of the specific context and the need for a pragmatic approach to peace- and state-building.

Despite the pragmatism that permeates the thinking of the report, there are certainly limits to the rethink and the solutions and processes imagined in it. Its vision of harmony seems as unconvincing today as it must have done to the 19th century European nobility when they lost their privileges.

A small step for mankind ….

… but the 2011 World Development Report (WDR) could be a big step for the World Bank. As other comments have pointed out, many elements in the report have been published and discussed before. This includes the emphasis on institutional resilience and a highly focused agenda of reform. For those who have followed the past decade’s debate on ‘fragile states’, the WDR 2011 contains few new ideas and insights. What makes the report an interesting read is therefore not so much what is said but that it is the World Bank saying it. Compared to the previous WB report on violent conflict from 2003, the WDR 2011 suggests an important shift in the WB approach to the analysis of violence, conflict and fragile situations.

Firstly, although the report still relies heavily on econometrics and statistical analysis, it also underlines that “economics is not everything”. Alternatively, the WDR points to the importance of injustice, identity, ideology, respect, political motivations and other factors which however are much more difficult to test statistically (p.81). It appears that the greed/ grievance dichotomy is at long last put aside.

Secondly, the new report is more realistic about the nature and timescale of reforms and development which are seen as profoundly political rather than just technical fixes. The overly optimistic ethos of social engineering that permeated the 2003-report seems to have given way to a more historically-informed analysis of the complex trajectories of state formation.

Finally, the report gives much more consideration to the importance of the specific context and the need for a pragmatic approach to peace- and state-building. As many other reports have suggested, fragile situations require strategic prioritization and sequencing. The WDR 2011 gives priority to (citizen) security, justice and job creation and argues that most other reforms, including privatization, decentralization and political reform, may have to wait a number of years. Again, this is not breaking news in itself. Yet, for the Bank it is a major step to argue in favor of postponing economic reforms.

A New Bank?
When taken together, the shifts indicate a growing awareness of the importance of politics and context. This could possibly lead to a more flexible and innovative approach than the Bank is renowned for. Two interesting novelties of the report are helpful for exploring how far, or perhaps rather how deep, this rethink goes. The first is the notion of “best fit” that values local adaptation over technical perfection; the second is the importance adhered to “strategic communication” and the emphasis placed on managing expectations.

Bureaucratic institutions and government agencies are by definition prone to standard operating procedures. This is not least true for multilateral and bilateral donors despite their insistence that there is ‘no one-size fits all’ or ‘blueprint’: Each situation is unique and each country must find its own path to sustainable peace and development. The notion of ‘best-fit’ can easily be written off as yet another ritualized repetition of that truism. It has, however, potential to be more. Firstly, because it maintains a firm focus on the “conditions of imperfect security and weak institutions” that define fragile states, rather than on the end-goal of functioning and stable statehood. This translates into a stronger focus on ‘working with the grain’ and partnering up with the non-state and informal institutions than is conventionally seen in state-building policies. Secondly, because “best fit” aims explicitly at doing away with the “procedural conformism” of international agencies that is not only time-consuming and burdensome, but which often hindered timely and meaningful intervention: HQ imposed standardized solutions must give way to field innovation and options that are less-than-perfect from a technocratic point of view but which nevertheless works because they provide the “best fit”. The question is not whether “best fit” makes sense, but whether the concept is sufficiently ‘owned’ by the Bank to be translated into practice.

Focusing on how to turn around situations with high levels of violence, the report shows much confidence in the capacity of governments and international agencies for ‘impression management’ as anthropologists would say. Strategic communication and the management of ‘signals’ to restore confidence, boost the legitimacy of state authorities, and give proof of its commitment, are seen as crucial for producing turn-a-rounds. Given the current political importance adhered to visibility, signals, and polls for measuring their effectiveness, this emphasis is no surprise, but the question is to which degree such effects are actually predictable and manageable in the kind of environments where rumors and conspiracy-theories are particularly ripe.

Old Habits Die Hard
Despite the pragmatism that permeates the thinking of the report, there are certainly limits to the rethink and the solutions and processes imagined in the WDR 2011. As pointed out by Suhrke and Samset on this Forum, the current report is reproducing various flaws of a previous WB report on conflict from 2003, such as the debatable statistical methods behind the notion of “cycles of violence”, and a concept of violence as being development in reverse. This dichotomy is echoed in the suggestion of the WDR that even though change is always contested and painful, the losses for some groups are only temporary. In the long run everybody stands to gain from the proposed institutional transformations. This vision of harmony seems as unconvincing today as it must have done to the 19th century European nobility when they lost their privileges.

Instead of engaging the full complexity of violence, including the notion of legitimate violence and the linkages between violence and the production of order, the report insists that “until societies have found collective institutions to mediate and control violence”, they are “doomed to repeat” the “vicious cycle of repeated violence” (p. 89). This implies that elite pacts, coercion, and patronage, all associated with corruption and violence, are phenomena to be eliminated. An idealized version of the Weberian state remains the end-goal. The report thus definitely rules out the outsourcing of security functions to sub-national entities – a suggestion which is otherwise considered in international policy debates (p. 135).

The report opens with a bold statement: “21st century conflicts and violence are a development problem that does not fit the 20th century mold” (p. 2) and takes this further to suggest that a fundamental rethink of the approach to global risks is needed (p. 38). It stops, however, short of engaging in the thorny discussion of non-Weberian forms of statehood and the emerging system of global governance. For all its rethink-hullabaloo, the report remains firmly within the confines of the security-development nexus and the Liberal Peace thesis that has dominated international policies for the past two decades.

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