"Paradigm Maintenance", or why we can't trust the World Bank's research

24 January 2007
Robin Broad has shown correctly that World Bank’s chief concern is “paradigm maintenance” - in other words, justification for Bank policies developed far away from the research department itself. Susan George defends Broad’s approach in the face of the World Bank’s attempt to discredit it.

Robin Broad, an outstanding scholar of international affairs at the American University in Washington carried out a long and painstaking assessment of the quality of the World Bank's development research. Through an exhaustive review of the literature but also interviews [guaranteeing confidentiality] with a great many researchers, she came to the conclusion that the Bank's chief research concern was "paradigm maintenance"--in other words justification for Bank policies, developed far away from the research department itself, which imposed "Washington Consensus" type policies on dozens of weaker countries. She published her conclusions in the Review of International Political Economy [RIPE] in the summer of 2006.

Broad's analysis, the result in my view of impeccable scholarship, brought a predictable response from the Bank. Two people from the research department [who may perhaps have drawn the short straws….] wrote to the journal to complain about "her poor scholarship" and about the editors' reviewing process allowing the piece to be published. As a member of the RIPE Board, I felt not just entitled but duty-bound to reply to charges I considered false and misleading.

After this exchange--of which my own modest contribution is posted here--an exceptionally welcome confirmation of Broad's conclusions [and my own instincts] in the form of a review commissioned by the Bank itself and undertaken by some of the world's best know orthodox economists, including the former research director of the International Monetary Fund Kenneth Rogoff, which concluded that the Bank was indeed stretching or even falsifying its research conclusions to fit its own political agenda.

Robin Broad, with little or no access to the material this commission could consult arrived, earlier and single-handed, at the same conclusions.

So here is one more proof, should we need one, that independent scholarship must be supported and encouraged, whatever the power and prestige of its opponents. I'm proud to have contributed a tiny piece to this immense tapestry of intellectual resistance.

To the RIPE Editorial Board and to whom it may concern
From Susan George
22 November 2006

I write in response to the letter sent by Daniel Lederman and Martin Ravallion to Sarah O'Byrne, Managing Editor of RIPE, calling into question the quality and accuracy of Robin Broad's article "Research, knowledge and the art of 'paradigm maintenance': the World Bank's Development Economics Vice-Presidency [DEC]" [RIPE 13:3 August 2006].

Although I have long taken an interest in the activities of the Bank and have published a fair amount concerning it [notably Faith and Credit: The World Bank's Secular Empire, with Fabrizio Sabelli, Penguin, London 1994] I must confess that I had not yet read Robin Broad's article. Thus I saw the Lederman-Ravallion letter first, which naturally prompted me to read the corpus delicti, so to speak. This I have now done, I believe carefully. I have also read the response of the RIPE editorial board setting forth in considerable detail the rigorous procedure followed between reception and publication of Broad's paper.

Having done so, I must say I am somewhat dismayed both by the tone and by the content of Lederman/Ravallion's objections. Naturally I believe the journal should give them space to bring their criticisms to a wider public, but I understand that they do not wish this; preferring to attack Broad's reputation as a scholar in general and the quality of this paper in particular with a select but influential few.

Broad's contribution struck me, on the contrary, as remarkably original in subject matter, breaking entirely new ground with regard to the Bank which has not, as her copious bibliography makes clear, suffered from a lack of scholarly scrutiny. Perhaps this breach of the hitherto inviolate wall of the DEC provoked the reply; other observers of the Bank will surely be grateful, as I am, to Broad for opening it. The paper is historically grounded as well; I was particularly interested in Drag Avramovic's early references to the 'firm, obsessive ideology' of the Bank, but a great many other authorities, including no less a personage than Sir Nicholas Stern, support her conclusions. Her interviews clearly concentrate on people at the base of the research pyramid and it does not surprise me that Ravallion's opinion should diverge from those clearly expressed by the "foot soldiers"--management and rank and file in any large institution tend to differ in their perceptions. Nowhere, however, does she use a phrase like "suppressed by his manager" concerning the researcher Branko Milanovic; that phrase is Ravallion's. The latter's chief complaint seems to be that Broad didn't answer his e-mail, sent in his private capacity to her, in hers. I doubt I would have answered either if I had just spent considerable time researching, writing and revising a paper for RIPE, when, after a demanding review process, my work was already accepted for publication and "in the queue".

In any event, this article is not the case study of Branko Milanovic versus David Dollar to which Ravallion--Milanovic's Research Manager--appears to wish to reduce it. It is about institutional "paradigm maintenance", a felicitous phrase I wish I had invented, and here I think any impartial jury would agree that Broad has overwhelmingly proved her case.

I hardly know how to judge Lederman's complaints which occupy about four pages, including the charts, on a subject [the accuracy of the executive summary of a long Bank document on a point concerning Mexican wages] to which Broad devoted less than one. Again, this should be a matter for reply in the pages of RIPE, but it strikes me as somewhat academic anyway, given the hundreds of thousands of Mexican maquiladora jobs lost due to their flight to China [see the Mexican press at the time of the WTO meeting in Cancun, September 2003] and the great number of small farmers ruined by imports of cheap American corn thanks to NAFTA, whose benefits the Bank's report had seen fit to extol.

Could it be that the letter of complaint helps to prove rather than to disprove Broad's case--it struck me as a classic example of manning the barricades in the interests of paradigm defense.


Susan George
[I have left out the ceremonial "Dr" throughout, for all concerned, but I also have a PhD]