The 2011 World Development Report: A potential game-changer

We think the latest World Bank report is a 'game changer', which asks fundamental questions about the way in which the international community has been dealing with conflict and fragility. In short, it says we have collectively been getting things wrong and need to change direction. Here's our response:

The 2011 World Development Report – A potential game-changer

This week sees the long-awaited publication of the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report (WDR), which puts conflict prevention and citizen’s security at the heart of the development agenda. The WDR confidently focuses on an issue which challenges the international development sector at a fundamental level. It demands that we recognise that if we do not collectively and explicitly address the violence and injustice that affect 1.5 billion people in poor countries, then poverty will deepen, development gains will be lost and people will continue to live with insecurity, violence and fear. The WDR demands that we confront the interlinked challenges of addressing conflict, insecurity and poverty.

International Alert argues consistently that development and poverty reduction can only be achieved when the sources of violence are tackled and institutions capable of managing conflict non-violently are in place. Given the World Bank’s international leadership position on development issues, it’s a tremendously important signal that it has nailed its colours to the mast by making conflict and security the theme of this year’s WDR.

The 2011 WDR is set to become a seminal text. Nearly two years in the making, it is a well-researched and -argued document which makes it clear that international development institutions are failing to deal with the problem that unresolved and unmanaged conflicts keep 1.5 billion people in poverty. Instead, they all-too-often simply work around the problem. This is an issue in places like Ivory Coast and Afghanistan, and it is also problematic in countries like Mexico and Brazil, where gang violence undermines social and economic development just as comprehensively as civil war does elsewhere. In each case, the impact is increased poverty, the disruption of people’s lives, deepening social divides, violent crime and untimely death. These effects are experienced disproportionately by children, women, and the poorest and most marginalised families.

The importance of institutions

Progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals has been minimal in fragile contexts. To explain this, the WDR turns traditional development thinking on its head as it makes it very clear that progress in addressing poverty cannot be addressed simply by working on the indicators of change, as important as they may be: increased enrolment of girls in school, higher survival rates for children and pregnant women, people having enough to eat, etc. It argues that what countries experiencing extreme political and criminal violence have in common is the inadequacy of their political, economic and social institutions. This means that institution-building is the key to progress. To be clear, the report’s authors are not just referring to formal institutions – ministries, courts, etc. – but also the informal institutions in society such as markets and the unwritten rules and norms people live by. Institutions, if functioning well and if characterised by the right values and norms, provide resilience against internal and external stresses which can otherwise lead to violence.

For international development agencies to be successful, they need to understand and tackle complex societal and political issues such as:

  • The emergence of a resilient and effective state, able to absorb and manage the stresses it comes under, and provide steadily improving services to its people
  • Citizenship, and the evolution of a more effective relationship between citizens and the state, in which governments are responsive to citizens’ interests, and citizens have a stronger voice
  • The provision of security and justice for citizens within the rule of law
  • The provision of opportunities for people from across society to earn a decent living Reducing international practices which place additional stress on fragile countries: trafficking in narcotics, weapons and people; money laundering; etc.

These kinds of changes take decades to accomplish. The WDR identifies characteristics of successful processes in places where progress has recently been made, for instance:

  • Building inclusive coalitions for change reaching beyond the parties in power
  • Rapid confidence-building through quick, limited but real results, whose benefits are shared by many
  • Getting the right balance between different kinds of institutional reform, with political, economic and infrastructural reform going hand in hand
  • Ensuring the pace of reform is ‘just right’: enough to meet expectations, but not so fast as to be destabilising; and allowing time for reforms on paper to be followed up in practice
  • Institutional change though innovation, not by copying others.

Three main challenges

The WDR changes the nature of how international development is conceived and delivered and raises as many questions as it answers. Indeed it has the potential to undermine some of the assumptions which have underpinned international development thinking for the past fifteen years. The international development sector now faces three major challenges:

1. Redefining success

The WDR is a game-changer. It says that because it affects the lives and prospects of 1.5 billion people, conflict can no longer be considered as a niche issue, outside the mainstream of development. For the international community to live up to its responsibility to these people, it needs to redefine its mission to include the complex task of institution building. This is not something to add on, e.g. as an additional Millennium Development Goal. It must become central to our understanding of what development is all about.

This means that the policies and strategies of development agencies will need to be recast, showing how they expect to contribute to human progress through actions which are political in nature, and measuring success in terms of the emergence of institutions, as much as in terms of the MDGs.

2. Value for money

The WDR also goes to the heart of the current debate about Value for Money in the aid sector, which in the wrong hands risks becoming a mechanism for promoting the cheapest and easiest to measure aid programmes. If aid is properly defined as an international mechanism to support and encourage the emergence of resilient and responsive states and societies, and legitimate institutions, it’s clear that this has enormous value. But it is long-term, expert and labour-intensive work, in which one size indubitably does not fit all, and which lends itself poorly to simple measurement of progress. In other words, for the likes of the World Bank, the UN, DFID and NGOs, it will be expensive and hard to control.

3. Re-organisation

Fitness-for-purpose is defined according to the purpose. If the purpose of international development aid needs to change, then the institutions and organisations need to change too. They will need to adopt markedly different ways of working, and a new mind set. Despite examples of innovation happening within the current set-up when creative leadership is applied, the system too often gets in the way of the kinds of approaches recommended in the WDR. International institutions will need to consider:

  • Carrots and sticks: major changes in the way that departments, individuals, and projects are held accountable, to encourage innovation and risk-taking, and to reward slow progress and reflective process over quick results
  • Staffing: changing their staffing balance, to include a greater number of people from fields such as anthropology and political science, and with an ability to innovate, adapt and challenge ideas; to increase the amount of time spent on country assignments
  • Structure: review their structures, roles and authority levels to enable more freedom of manoeuvre to staff, with HQ playing an oversight, challenging and monitoring role
  • Developing very different relationships than today: with tax-payers and donors, with partner governments, within civil society and the business sector, and getting out of capital cities more
  • Become more comfortable with risk: adopting an attitude to risk consistent with a strategy of supporting long-term and unpredictable transformation, in which short-term outcomes are very difficult to predict and control.

An inspiration

Paradigm shifts are not achieved by the faint-hearted. The WDR calls for a 'fundamental rethink'. The natural reaction to the WDR among many will probably be to salute its contribution to development thinking, and then find an appropriate place on the bookshelf where it can gather dust. This would be a great mistake. Instead, the report should be taken very seriously and used as an inspiration by politicians, academics, civil servants and aid workers and all those who want to help break the cycles of violent conflict which blight so many lives and block development.

Photo: International Alert/Kashish Das Shrestha