Why publishing aid data does not equal 'democratizing development'

I read Owen Barder’s comment on Robert Zoellick’s speech with interest, but I am hesitant to agree with the notion of ‘democratising development’ that he seems to find in the speech (interestingly, the comments section of this article is closed...). Zoellick was saying a few interesting, politically correct comments on aid transparency and, of course, nobody wants to disagree with him about the value of these endeavours. Nobody wants to see less data in the public domain or disagree that transparency is important. But this focus on data, on abstract numbers and seemingly neutral, objective statistics is by no means about to change development research or even ‘democratising development’. What is missing in Zoellick’s speech is the ‘institutional I’, the role of the organisation called World Bank, its internal discussions and use of the numbers rather than simply publishing numbers ABOUT developing countries. The underlying argument is that any aid organisation bases its programmes and decisions solely on ‘objective’ data; First, this ignores the ‘social science’ that is involved in collecting and interpreting data. If you have worked with development economist and/or large datasets you may be aware how working with a household survey from country X can produce astonishing results based on your baseline data, averages etc. Ever since Latour’s research in scientific laboratories we know that the real work of scientists only starts once an experiment is conducted and the interpretation of results starts. Numbers can help to inform a decision, of course, but they are simply not value-free and neutral-and critical research on the World Bank and its procedures have confirmed this time and again, e.g. the publications of Ben Fine or Robin Broad. Second, there seems to be the believe that ‘good numbers’ equals ‘good policy-making’; we all know that development is a highly politicised endeavour and arguments are never based on numbers, forecasts and statistics alone. This has been a core theme in development anthropology for the past few years and a forthcoming book will shed additionally light on these processes-with reference to the Bank and other large aid organisations.
I also welcome the Bank’s Open Data initiative, but if we really want to democratise the development discourse we should also publish, say, the minutes of Bank board meetings and other relevant internal documents to understand how ideas and statistics are translated into ‘reality’ through powerful interlocutors like the Bank and its staff. In other words, 'democratising development' is too important to be left to economists and large aid organisations alone; critical sociological and ethnographic research on the 'life of numbers' is needed as well.


  1. Hello, several World Bank Board documents including Board minutes are available online at www-wds.worldbank.org [HINT: go to advanced search and select "minutes" under Document Type]


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