In praise of interdisciplinarity at the World Bank

Blogging is like exercising: if you fall out of the habit, it can be hard to get back into it. Last month I started a new job that’s kept me pretty busy. Of course, compared to unemployment, this is a good problem to have. Sadly it meant my blogging dropped to zero. Though work shows no sign of letting up, I’ve gotten into the swing of things and also moved to a new apartment, which cuts my commuting time significantly. So I’m going to ease back into blogging.

The big story in international development that I missed was the selection of the World Bank’s new president. We weren’t surprised to learn this week that the American candidate won — but remember a month ago, when we were surprised to find out who the American candidate would be? Or as Owen Barder put it with dry British wit:

In fact, there were three March surprises in this campaign. First, Jeff Sachs took the unprecedented step of publicly applying for the job. Second, Barack Obama ignored him and instead nominated Jim Yong Kim to the post.

The third surprise was a vibrant campaign for someone else. The position has historically gone to whoever the American president picks, just as the head of the IMF is chosen by the Europeans. This practice was seriously challenged for the first time, with a number of prominent voices championing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (currently Nigeria’s Finance Minister) and, to a lesser extent, José Antonio Ocampo (formerly Colombia’s Finance Minister).

While I agree that America’s dominance of the World Bank is morally unjustifiable, the politics of it are also undeniable. As Dan Drezner pointed out, there was no way Obama was going to compromise on this in an election year. Geopolitical shifts will surely change that in the future. I share Chris Blattman’s optimism that the recent debate will lead to greater openings.

Let’s go back to the second surprise. Kim is a doctor, a public health professor, an anthropologist, a college president, and a co-founder of the well-known NGO Partners in Health. He’s not an economist or a banker. Though none of the recent presidents have had PhDs in economics either, you would at least expect someone running the World Bank to have a background in finance.

Or would you? In the past few decades, the World Bank has dramatically shifted what it does and how it does it. It’s no longer just a bank, but a development agency with a stated mission of reducing poverty. Long gone are the days when either the outcomes or the tools of development are seen in purely economic terms.

Yet the organization itself is still dominated by economists. Like almost every professional in any field, economists have a tendency to think that their tools and frameworks can solve problems outside their original topics. See, for example, the entire Freakonomics franchise. This sort of intellectual mission creep can produce fun ideas and challenge existing paradigms. However, there’s something inefficient (even dangerous) about economists grappling with issues and policies related to institutions or cultural change, when the political scientists and anthropologists have been working on those for decades.

That’s why interdisciplinarity* matters. We become better at solving problems if we bring people from various fields together. We’re also more likely to be a bit humble about our ability to solve problems, because other ways of knowing will highlight weaknesses in our own. Humility is a quality that’s historically been missing from the development industry.

Changing organizational inertia takes time, but you might as well start at the top. So although it’s sad to see the US continue to dominate the World Bank, I’m happy to see a doctor and NGO founder — rather than an economist or banker — at the helm. Let’s hope he brings further changes during his term.

_______________________________

Related: Some very smart people give Jim Yong Kim advice for his first year.

_______________________________

* “Interdisciplinarity” is totally a word, I promise.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s