Who really needs a World Development Report?

The World Bank released its annual World Development Report (WDR) last Friday.

The Changing Nature of Work
has already triggered some negative feedback which contributes to an emerging case study about the value of ‘flagship reports’, development policy discourses and ritualized behavior from the critics; above all, bigger questions loom what the purpose of the WDR exercise really is.

Just in case you have been hibernating for the last five to eight years or so the report starts with an ‘everything has already been said-but not by everybody’ summary:

Technology is changing the skills that employers seek. Workers need to be better at complex problem-solving, teamwork and adaptability. Digital technology is also changing how people work and the terms on which they work. Even in advanced economies, short-term work, often found through online platforms, is posing similar challenges to those faced by the world’s informal workers. The Report analyzes these changes and considers how governments can best respond. Investing in human capital must be a priority for governments in order for workers to build the skills in demand in the labor market. In addition, governments need to enhance social protection and extend it to all people in society, irrespective of the terms on which they work.
Alice Evans provides an excellent first overview of some of the issues with the latest WDR and puts them into the context of what she believes where betters efforts by the World Bank in previous years.

Maggie Thatcher, SDGs & an essay competition
The first round of critique has been generally unsurprising: Oxfam sent in a reminder about corporate power and tax reforms:

Oxfam said the report’s main message was that governments should abandon labour market regulation and rely instead on low levels of welfare to prevent workers falling into extreme poverty.
With poor countries facing the twin threats from large corporates unwilling to negotiate with trade unions and young start-ups insisting on casual labour arrangements, Oxfam said the World Bank appeared to offer labour market deregulation as the only way to prepare countries for the changing nature of work.
Peter Bakvis from the Institute for Policy Studies points out that the Bank is still driven by pro-deregulation ‘ideology’-a claim that always sticks in connection with the Bank’s work.
His comment about statistical problems is more important, especially since the Bank has been under increased scrutiny after Paul Romer had to leave his post earlier this year.

The statistical acrobatics on inequality are aimed at bolstering the report team’s pro-deregulation ideology. The report repeatedly asserts that business deregulation will lead to decreased informality, even when data presented in the report contradict this claim. Figure 0.5, for example, shows a sharp fall in business startup costs since 2005, and the accompanying text acknowledges that “despite improvements in the business regulatory environment” over the past two decades, the size of the untaxed, unregulated “informal” economy has not declined. Yet the report, proving that ideology trumps factual evidence, repeatedly puts forward the need to reduce regulations in order to cure informality and several other economic ills.
And the Guardian’s Larry Elliot manages to sneak in some good ol’ Maggie Thatcher bashing in his comment (In essence, the World Bank has come up with a rehashed form of trickle-down theory that Margaret Thatcher would happily have endorsed), but he also makes a more important point that the OECD and IMF have also been working on issues related to the inequalities produced by the changing nature of work.

That triggered the ILO who published a lengthy response to the WDR reminding everybody that their decent work approach is still playing in selected development theaters near you!

The decent work agenda, which advances the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, presents a more coherent, balanced and equitable path to achieving inclusive growth and sustainable development.
So rather than getting behind whatever message it is the WDR wants to send, turf wars emerge immediately as many organizations have already positioned themselves with ‘future of work’ reports and programs.

But snarky comments aside, there is a bigger question of the purpose of any flagship report these days.
There are so many nuanced, critical reports available on any aspect of the WDR, but all the Bank can think of is an essay competition to solicit good news case studies from college students:

The World Bank has launched a competition for university and college students to submit examples of governments, cities, firms, individuals, or any other actor taking advantage of opportunities created by technology and “the future of work”.
The faux transparency of ‘your call is important to us’
Activists with case studies about the downsides of technology need not apply…or you could have added science fiction stories, poems etc. to break the routine of a report that is based on more reports which could have eased the dominance of economists in writing the report.
To add to the ritualized performances of critique, I should probably add that some anthropological or sociological input would have benefit the analysis
 
The Bank’s innovative approach goes further than an essay competition as Jim Kim stresses in his foreword:

The 2019 World Development Report is unique in its transparency. For the first time since the World Bank began publishing the WDR in 1978, we made an updated draft publicly available, online each week, throughout the writing process. For over seven months, it has benefited from thousands of comments and ideas from development practitioners, government officials, scholars, and readers from all over the world.
I would love to read through those comments!
Seriously, this is great research content to see who thought that they could influence the report.

In my articles featuring reflections on my PhD process and the rituals and performance surrounding peacebuilding events, meeting, conferences and publications I relied among other scholar on Eric Rothenbuhler who defines ritual as ‘the voluntary performance of appropriately patterned behavior to symbolically effect or participate in the serious life’.

The World Bank, its critics and the other organizations that work in the discursive space that the WDR 2019 outlines follow a ritual logic in a mediatized space that will quickly move on to the next report. In their essay Bankspeak-The language of World Bank reports, Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre concluded in 2015:

All extremely uplifting—and just as unfocused: because the function of gerunds consists in leaving an action’s completion undefined, thus depriving it of any definite contour. An infinitely expanding present emerges, where policies are always in progress, but also only in progress. Many promises, and very few facts. ‘Everything has to change, in order for everything to remain the same’, wrote Lampedusa in The Leopard; and the same happens here. All change, and no achievement. All change, and no future.
If nothing else, Changing Nature of Work is an interesting case study on the communicative and discursive environment around so-called ‘flagship reports’. Their framing, but also the framing of the critique, have become performative non-places based on traditional assumptions what development organizations are, what they do and who they can influence with their knowledge.
In the case of the future of work an accelerated, overheated (to use Hylland Eriksen
s terminology) and unequal world will surely be less impressed with a World Development report than it was with some of the true ‘flagship reports’ of the past.
 
Additional reading on Aidnography:

World Development Report 2011 – creating a ‘non-place’ for development debates? 


A few reflections on the new OECD flagship report on Data for Development

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