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The World Bank as a transnational expertised institution.

The World Bank has become an expertised transnational institution and thus subject to the problems of expertise identified by social studies of science. The legitimacy and credibility of the Bank's expertise is drawn through a circular process between the knowledge it produces and the audiences that legitimize that knowledge. Untangling such circularity is crucial because global poverty and development are not simple social facts awaiting to be described or predicted. Given that processes of knowledge formation and the institutionalization of expertise are in themselves political exercises, the Bank's knowledge shapes global governance. This article calls for constructive engagement of academics on the way knowledge is produced and distributed by global institutions. KEYWORDS: poverty, expertise, World Bank, knowledge, legitimacy.


The World Bank is one of the most important sources of knowledge for development and poverty reduction. Its research capacities, the influence that its lending role has in developing countries, and the support it draws from the United States and global financial actors endow approaches and ideas endorsed by the Bank with a unique power and influence. Given that processes of knowledge creation, expert institutionalization, and community formation are in themselves political exercises, (1) the Bank is a major global governance actor as much as a major global knowledge actor: it is a transnational expertised state-like institution that sets the scene for both global politics and global knowledge.

Knowledge produced or supported by the Bank cannot be said to be objective science elaborated independently from politics and disembodied from wider social worlds. In addition, the Bank's knowledge is not only self-referential, but it is also limited by its diverse principals, who often pose conflictive demands on the Bank's researchers. In this article, I argue that the legitimacy and credibility of the Bank's expertise is drawn through a circular process between the knowledge it produces and the audiences that legitimize that knowledge. Because global poverty and development are not simple social facts waiting to be described or predicted, untangling such circularity is crucial. These are complex and ill-structured issues that cannot be fully captured by the cognitive tools of a single discipline. Rather than formed by objective truths or scientific consensus, knowledge for development tends to be formed by facts-surrogate, partial accounts of a complex social problem. And these are often the result of a consensus among certain scientists rather than a scientific consensus. Peer review processes do not solve the problems posed by expertised institutions like the Bank. I conclude the article by proposing further constructive engagement of academics on the way knowledge is produced and distributed by global institutions.

The Knowledge Bank: Obsolete Assumptions

The World Bank was created in 1944, together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as the public sector and intergovernmental financial cooperative. Entrusted first with the economic recovery of war-ravaged countries, it was soon after given the role of providing knowledge and resources for development. Formally, the Bank is governed by a Board of Governors and a Board of Directors representing the views of all member countries; however, it has a weighted voting system that gives more power to those countries that contribute more resources. The Bank's member countries are divided into those that mostly give funds and those that mostly receive them, creating a complex web of often conflicting relations between countries and the Bank. However, the Bank was conceived early on as an agent of all member countries--recipients as well as donors--as much as an intergovernmental cooperative.

Since the early days, the Bank took the role of information intermediary among the different partners of the development process. In addition, it dedicated a very substantial amount of human and material resources to collect and generalize data about the economies and poverty trends of developing countries and less developed countries (LDCs). As development became defined as an economic problem, institutions that hired the best and the greatest number of economists took a privileged position in relation to other UN institutions. Furthermore, given the increasing importance of the economies of developing countries and LDCs, institutions that generated data and assessments about them from the beginning became endowed with legitimacy and credibility. The credibility of approaches endorsed and generated by the Bank is drawn from this already accomplished pool of data and researchers, but also from follow-up academic peer reviews of its products by highly reputed development economists. However, development economics' methods and tools and mathematical and statistical knowledge have become over time a virtual monopoly of the Bank. At the same time, the Bank publishes the most widely read journals in the area and produces and commissions an increasing amount of research. The IMF and the Bank together "possess the holy trinity of social science research--data, financial resources, and human resources--and as a consequence offer[s] probably the largest single environment for comparative work on LDCs." (2)

Today, the range of research topics addressed by the Bank goes from poverty to the environment, social policy, health reforms, education and school curricula, rural and urban development, and, more recently, to governance, empowerment, and social capital, among others. By addressing these themes primarily through the lenses of development economics, the Bank's knowledge web embraces most aspects related to economic, political, and social change. The influence of the policy knowledge generated in-house by the Bank--or commissioned to external advisers and consultants--is overwhelming, in terms of both scope and economic capacity. The Bank has its own webs of advisers and collaborators, which increasingly include networks of think tanks all over the world to which it commissions research. That is, the Bank creates its own communities of experts who not only spread this institution's knowledge but also legitimate it.

Development research in the Bank is entrusted to a set of departments and teams under the supervision of the senior vice-president and chief economist--called the Development Economics Senior Vice-Presidency (DEC) and the World Bank Institute (WBI). The DEC is entrusted with the role of generating, coordinating, funding, and verifying through review processes the knowledge that is used in almost all types and contents of projects and programs of the Bank, the various sectors, their operational focus, and the decisionmaking of the Board of Governors. Research elaborated in the Bank also informs policymaking in LDCs in general as much as it assists in the implementation of Bank projects. Under the heading of DEC, the Bank organizes the following research groups and products: the Data Group, the Research Group, the Prospects Group, the Development Policy Department, the Resource Management Team, the Research Advisory Staff, the World Development Report, and the Global Development Network, a joint creation with the World Bank Institute. The WBI is devoted to training, policy consultations, and the creation and support of knowledge networks. The dominant discipline is development economics. (3)

After years of attacks from left and right and from states and NGOs, and partly as a response to the criticisms that the Bank "suffers from a dysfunctional proliferation of objectives," reformers argue for the idea of a "Knowledge Bank." (4) Even though lending and operations, loan proposals, and assessment of outcomes still consume much of the Bank's resources and manpower, the Bank already has, to a considerable extent, the structure of a knowledge institution. Proponents of such a role emphasize the Bank's capacity to produce scientific yet policy-oriented research as a main source of legitimacy of the ideas and approaches it provides to client countries. (5) One of the main arguments for the Knowledge Bank is that unlike bilateral assistance, a multilateral institution like the Bank is able to keep at arm's length relations between powerful Western countries and the LDCs and to carry out development assistance in a way that avoids excesses of imperialism. It is assumed that the balancing of political forces the Bank performs, together with the technical expertise it provides, permits the Bank to acknowledge the interests of its main sponsor, the United States, while keeping its independence. (6) This alleged independence is one of the main sources of legitimacy of the Bank, yet such independence depends to a substantial extent on the Bank's cognitive neutrality, which enables recipients of aid to accept the Bank's policy recommendations without compromising their political sovereignty. As Ngaire Woods argues, 'The Bank can answer the question 'why should a government follow its advice?' by pointing to the fact that it undertakes research in well over 150 countries, bringing together the world's largest concentration of development specialists and producing some of the most definitive research in the field." (7)

Defenders of the Knowledge Bank argue that this is the only institution today capable of offering the right type of knowledge for development, given that</p> <pre> the Bank combines lending and advisory functions in a way which is incompatible with the profit-oriented incentives of private sector institutions (either banks or consulting firms), and with a commitment and mandate which is denied to other public institutions (universities, government aid agencies).... The Bank is in a position to give advice which is more disinterested than that provided by professional consultants, more professional than that provided by academics and more comprehensive than that provided by NGOs. (8) </pre> <p>These arguments are used to justify the quality and integrity of the knowledge provided by the Bank and leads to beg questions of political and moral responsibilities for such knowledge. The Bank is said to be a transnational institution providing only economic advice and funds to client countries, the Bank's main mandate, which often means the dismissal of any responsibilities either for the misapplications of their scientific advice or for the consequences of that knowledge in other noneconomic areas of the Bank's client countries' societies. (9) I argue that such considerations are obsolete in debates about the problems of delegation and expertise in science advice in other transnational expertised institutions and thus should be obsolete as regards the World Bank as well. The real problem is to determine what kinds of knowledge are produced and which ones are dominant. (10) Who defines evidence, how and why; who decides what is and what is not relevant knowledge, how and why. I argue in this article that the problem of sorting out knowledge from nonknowledge, as well as the political importance this may have, is pervasive in all knowledge produced not only by the World Bank but by all expertised institutions entrusted with science for policy.

The underlying premise for the legitimacy of the Knowledge Bank is that scientific knowledge is produced following a linear path. This linear model assumes that, first, scientists arrive at an alleged consensus on how to best conceptualize or address the issues at hand; for example, identifying the best ways to define the problems related to the poor and the best methodologies, measurements, and other epistemological tools according to policy objectives and mandate of the Bank. This knowledge provides, simultaneously, recommendations as to the best ways to reduce poverty. That is, it is both knowledge and action. Credibility and legitimacy are drawn through peer review processes common to basic science in academia, but with the presumption that the Bank's staff is of the highest quality. Then the linear model assumes that this knowledge informs the political actors about their results and prescriptions for action. Finally, politics responds with specific policy decisions. In other words, the scientific basis of the Bank's policy recommendations assumes there is no need to verify or regulate either the possibility of flawed, incomplete, or inappropriate scientific views or the possibility of political, economic, or ideological contamination. In addition, experts tend to dismiss any social and political foundation of their scientific views, which inevitably hides sets of values under the curtain of expertise, disciplinary methods, and the cognitive values appropriate to codified knowledge.

The assumption that scientific knowledge is a distinct and separate realm from the arena of politics--knowledge is linear--and the related premise that experts can, in fact, offer policymakers value-free and objective truths about completely messy and ill-structured issues such as global poverty and development, are the twin reasons for excluding as nonknowledge a substantial amount of possibly relevant views that could lead to more effective policymaking. (11) Sociologists use the term social closure to mean the ways in which the privileged maintain their privilege by precisely excluding others from the source that gives them their advantaged position and thus transforms them into elites; in the case of the Bank, we are facing an institutionalized transnational knowledge elite.

This characterization of the interactions and processes of scientific knowledge formation and dissemination and policy decisions--as a social contract for a value-free science--has been obsolete in national and regional debates within advanced economies. Complex issues with substantial political and social importance are scrutinized by congressional panels, hybrid committees of experts, and policymakers and often include the private sector, civil society, and citizens groups. The idea is to bring different experts and even lay people to discuss what cannot be solved with expert or technical knowledge. In the United States, and even at the transnational level, the processes of building knowledge for policymaking in highly complex and contested public issues, such as carcinogenic effects of food additives or anthropogenic-caused climate change, no longer function according to the social contract model. Rather, there is some sort of acknowledgment that many of these problems are not only about science, but also about social relations and value choices. To deal democratically with risk and uncertainty, regulatory and accountability mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the science policy nexus is not only maximized but properly bridged. (12) In addition, there is a growing body of literature addressing the role of nonexperts' participation in socially relevant issues related to knowledge-based policy. Because policy choices often depend on value-laden perceptions of risks and uncertainty, the participation of nonexperts and the inclusion of alternative views and diverse interests leads to more democratic knowledge. (13)

It may be argued that economic policy does not have the same characteristics as science and technology, but this is a flawed assumption. Development and poverty are highly complex and ill-structured problems; the way experts construct knowledge about them entails value choices with underlying acceptance or rejection of certain risks--choices with substantial consequences on the life chances of millions of human beings. Far from mere facts easily defined, measured, and planned, policy recommendations in these arenas are not only plagued with uncertainties and risks, but uncertainty and risk are the defining characteristics of knowledge-based economic policy. (14) In the rest of the article, I address some of the problems associated with expertise.

Expertise: The Relations Between Cognitive Authority and Audiences

The Knowledge Bank draws its authority from the idea that it is the most expertised institution in the field of economic development. Yet expertise itself is marred with problems usually taken for granted. A recent study by Stephen Turner on the risks expertise may pose to democratic principles illuminates some of the puzzles that expertised agencies entail. The separation of expert judgments from nonexperts is crucial, yet experts' knowledge is eventually decided by a combination of three main elements: the triad of support, audience, and the legitimating that their role (as experts) involves. That is, what separates expert from nonexpert knowledge is the audience for which the knowledge is intended, the sources of the support for their claims, and the legitimating role that the knowledge itself generates. (15)

The value of expert knowledge depends always on the relations between cognitive authority and audiences. It is common to think that if one has knowledge one does not need authority, or that the knowledge claims of experts are legitimized by the recognition by their audience that their claims are indeed expert. Nevertheless, the relations are not that simple; there are different types of audiences and legitimating devices and measures that may lead to very different relations between experts and the sources of legitimacy and credibility of their expertise. Turner establishes a taxonomy of five different ideal types of experts according to these diverse relations between audiences and sources of legitimacy.

A first type of expertise is that of physicists; they address their claims to a preestablished community of physicists who share the tacit as well as explicit knowledge of this field. These represent a community of experts who tend to acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge claims and for whom the tentative character of their knowledge judgments tends to be transparent. We can also distinguish experts of a second type: those who create their own followers and thus their own audiences--for instance, a psychologist proposing and prescribing a particular type of self-help system. A third type is a variation of the second in that experts seek a place in the political arena--for example, intellectuals who become advocates of their own causes and who, by reaching political power, transform their intellectual principles and norms into political movements (e.g., feminism, the Green Party, and so on). The fourth type of expert, according to Turner, is the expert with a cause. These are experts subsidized "to speak and claim expertise in the hope that the views they advance will convince a wider public and thus compel them into some sort of political action or choice." (16) The fifth type is a variant of the fourth in that its target audience is not the general public, but an audience of professionals who are usually organized around a bureaucracy and often have discretionary powers.

Examples of the two latter ideal types of expert institutions abound in the social sciences, Turner argues, where often disciplines have been created by an institution claiming expertise in a subject that had been thought of until then as belonging to a different realm (e.g. politics), or that had been thought of as a matter for the wider public to decide. Turner offers as an insightful historical example the Russell Sage Foundation (Sage Foundation), which combines expert types four and five. The Sage Foundation, a charitable organization created at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, shifted from using volunteers to do its charitable work to creating a category of experts: social workers. Their expertise was then used to justify the cognitive authority of the profession itself, and the foundation became an expertised bureaucracy. At the same time, the Sage Foundation refused to fund pleas for help from individuals and worked more at generating demand so that governments and local institutions would commit their own resources to their cause--for example, by funding playgrounds that the Sage Foundation's experts had earlier defined were a needed element of a particular neighborhood. The expert knowledge of these workers was then used to raise awareness of the need for, as well as the cognitive authority of, their work:</p> <pre> Exerting influence that legitimated the expert's knowledge claims was done through the creation of public demands. This required means of reaching the public and at the same time persuading the public of the validity of the demands.... Experts of the fourth kind support themselves ... by persuading potential subsidizers of the importance of getting their message out to the public and accepted as legitimate experts. (17) </pre> <p>A substantial problem is that the constituencies of these organizations are used as a justification of their institutional expertise for other political audiences. Many NGOs today fall into this category; for example, organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace seek members and funds following the same reasoning: the constituencies of these organizations legitimate the expertise of the organization to political audiences and eventually to decisionmakers. We can add here other expertised bureaucracies dealing with poverty, relief, and development, such as OXFAM International and the various international NGOs in the field such as Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. These organizations, however, often seek to influence not only the wider public, but also individuals with discretionary power who belong themselves to other bureaucracies.

The fifth type of expert is formed by those whose audience is not primarily the public but other individuals in bureaucracies with discretionary power--that is, with power derived from politics. Public administration, according to Turner, falls into this category. An organization like the Rockefeller Foundation has generated legitimacy by functioning according to this characterization. Since the foundation was created, its audience has not been the wider public but rather experts from other bureaucracies, primarily universities and institutions like the Social Science Research Council. Many of these audience bureaucracies have eventually become dependent on the money delivered by Rockefeller to carry out work that had been defined and promoted by Rockefeller's experts, thereby generating a circular dynamic between expertise, audiences, and the legitimacy of that expertise. These types of expertised bureaucracies are a threat to democratic principles, because they end up having state powers without being accountable to democratic mechanisms.

The World Bank as a Statelike Expertised Bureaucracy

Arguably, the Bank falls into these last two ideal types elaborated by Turner. It is a statelike expertised bureaucracy on a subject matter that was earlier either in the hands of political decisionmakers or addressed through public debate. The directions in which societies are to develop, the goals and values that are to be traded, and the sectors of societies that receive the benefits and those that pay the cost of modernization are in themselves political decisions or matters to be debated with the participation of citizens. The Bank, among other institutions, took over these aspects of developing and less developed countries once they became the subject matter of the new discipline of development economics. It is important to notice that in advanced economies these issues are, at least partly, the subject of both politics and the wider public. Yet the Bank has become the "expert with a cause," speaking for the interests and future of peoples of poorer countries and, because it is subsidized by donor countries, often accomplishing the task of satisfying the need for calming the consciousness of their relatively well-off citizens for the suffering and poverty of others.

In addition, the more expertised the notion of development has become--especially the more economized and quantified--the audience legitimizing the Bank's knowledge has become other experts from other institutions. These are not only peers from specific disciplinary groups and academic institutions, but also peers from other bureaucracies--for example, from the US Treasury Department, or the Bank's sister institution, the IMF--and, most significantly, peers from client countries' political institutions. This legitimizing audience does have, as Turner argues, discretionary political powers. Knowledge claims from the Bank's research staff acquire a special type of legitimacy that other researchers--for example, mere academics--do not have, because Bank staff have certain discretionary powers--for example, to recommend withdrawing a loan or initiating a new project. As the Bank increasingly engages with NGOs, many of which transformed into expertised bureaucracies themselves, the circularity problem increases.

The relations between the Bank and those who legitimize its knowledge, however, are far more complex. As pointed out earlier, the methods and tools of development economics, and mathematical and statistical knowledge, have become over time a virtual monopoly of the Bank. The Bank publishes the most important journals on development economics, such as the World Bank Research Observer (WBRO) and the World Bank Economic Review (WBER), published by Oxford University Press. In addition, the Bank's website offers most of its staff's working papers online--that is, thousands of well-financed and ongoing research work that no other research institution can match. Through the Bank's site, anyone has access to such resources as the Research Datasets, which contain financial and household data and statistics on just about every aspect of developing and less developed countries' social, political, and economic organization. Although often the data are derived from information reported and funded by national governments, Bank experts reframe and improve the data. The Bank has thirteen different websites for research programs under such diverse headings as "the economics of civil war, crime and violence," "public services," "infrastructure and development," "macroeconomics and growth," "international trade," and "finance research."

Most significantly, the Bank organizes a series of important conferences on development economics: the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE). Initially held only in Washington, D.C., ABCDEs are now annual gatherings in Europe, and since 2003, there have been annual Bank conferences held in developing countries as well. According to the Bank's ABCDE website, these conferences are "one of the world's best known series of conferences for the presentation and discussion of new knowledge about development." The statement is not only a reminder of the synonymy between knowledge for development and development economics, but also a clear formulation that anyone who wishes to have a name, legitimacy, and credibility in these fields of knowledge must participate in the knowledge tools offered by the Bank. The codified knowledge offered by the Bank is part of the study programs of many universities and think tanks in development economics. Furthermore, any development economics scholar with academic aspirations not only must be familiar with the knowledge produced by the Bank, but also may be drawn to participate in the ABCDEs and publish in the Bank's journals.

In addition, the World Bank Institute, which was created in 1955 to train government officials, decisionmakers, and leaders in developing countries in economic analysis and implementation of development projects related to corruption, health, trade, environment, and so on, has become increasingly more powerful and influential. It acts as a knowledge broker enabling the sharing of knowledge, yet the knowledge is usually produced by the Bank. The WBI elaborates learning programs, recruits interns, and gives scholarships. It promotes learning via videoconferences, the Web, and classrooms. The WBI works in partnership with a global web of alliances to produce and deliver courses.

In 1999 the WBI created the Global Development Network (GDN), the biggest portal on development research. The GDN is a network of knowledge networks that promotes the sharing of best practices across users and countries and that emphasizes the building of research capacities in the South. Although no longer under the direction of the Bank, the GDN depends primarily on Bank funding, and it represents the instantiation of the Knowledge Bank and serves the interests of the institution that promotes the network and those of researchers who gain access to resources. At the same time, the GDN enables the Bank to create partnerships with institutions that share their core ideas while arguably neglecting those who don't. (18)

The creation of the category of experts called "development economists" and all the tools for knowledge production and dissemination that the Bank has built up over time, marking the scope and tendencies of this field of knowledge, transform the Bank into an expertised institution. Not unlike the Sage Foundation, the Bank has created since its earlier years a new category of experts: the development economists; their expertise has then been used to justify the cognitive authority of the profession itself. As the Bank represents the institutionalization of such experts, this circular process has led to the justification (and thus the legitimacy) of the institution itself, transformed today into the most powerful transnational expertised institution in the field of development and poverty reduction. The Bank has contributed to the demands for its own expert knowledge by framing the problems of poverty and development as primarily an economic problem that requires its expertise, and reproduces its own legitimacy and power by continuing to emphasize the priority of economic science. As in the case of the Rockefeller Foundation, many of the audience bureaucracies that legitimize the Bank's knowledge claims have eventually become dependent on the money delivered by the Bank to carry out work that had been defined and promoted by the Bank's experts, thereby generating a circular dynamic between expertise, audiences, and the legitimacy of that expertise. Such dependence is deepened by the dual roles of the Bank as provider of both funds and knowledge for development projects and poverty reduction.

Objectors may claim that the Bank had no alternative but to create and form experts in the fields of international development and global poverty, given the lack of research--especially policy-oriented research--in these fields. But as stated in the previous section, this argument assumes that the knowledge formulated and disseminated by the Bank is the best and only scientific basis for the appropriate treatment of the goals of development and the eradication of poverty, an assumption that rests on obsolete views of science-based policymaking. The times of the benevolent expert are long past. (19) The criticism that the Bank's knowledge for development and its disseminating channels "are conceived, designed and operated in a way that systematically excludes certain voices and perspectives" (20) deserves further attention, as it is not an ideological claim in itself--although often presented as such--but rather a reminder that it is possible to seek more effective, equitable, and democratic knowledge.

Untangling and making transparent this circularity between knowledge judgments and the audiences that legitimize such judgments is a pending research agenda. This is of particular importance in cases where the cognitive authority of experts is not complete, because the issues they refer to cannot be settled by the narrow expert knowledge they have and the condition for legitimacy preestablished by the field's community. As the taxonomy on ideal types of experts has shown us, the Bank is not a type one community of experts, like physicists, but rather a combination of the more complex types four and five--an expertised institution that has created its own expertise by defining a problem in a particular way and then closing a bureaucratic-technocratic circle around it and generating demand for its own constructed expertise.

Facts-Surrogate: The Penumbras of "Knowledge for Development"

Around every main area of expert knowledge there tends to be a penumbra, an area where technical knowledge, even though helpful, may not necessarily lead to a successful depiction of the problem at hand or to the formulation of appropriate solutions. (21) All disciplines have limitations, derived from the need to obey certain cognitive values or to follow established patterns and previous research. Disagreements among scientists of all types are common, and these tend to be sorted out through processes of academic peer review. Such processes, however, are only fair and complete in cases of experts of the first type elaborated by Turner, where the limitations and shortcomings of their expertise are shared and acknowledged. To the circularity of expertise and legitimating audiences that the Bank's knowledge is subject to, we must add penumbras related to the structure of the problems addressed by this institution--poverty and development--and penumbras related to the context of transnational decisionmaking about these issues.

For example, the problem of global poverty is ill structured and complex. Also, the context of global poverty policymaking (an emerging set of new forms of global governance) is also ill structured and changing. Ill-structured problems are those whose problem space, definitions, or the information relevant to address them are varied and changing. With different possible definitions of the problem, scientific truths are elusive. At most, we can talk about partial truths or partial depictions of facts. Each partial truth is built from a specific perspective of the complex problem under study, often intrinsically linked to the cognitive tools of the scientific discipline of the researcher. The choice of the problem space is thus open to questions beyond science proper (such as political interests, ethical beliefs, or cultural views). It is best to refer to conceptualizations of such complex and ill-structured problems--like global poverty--as facts-surrogate. (22) The competing and often contradictory conceptualizations of the problem can be said to be well-structured parts of an ill-structured whole. Producing proper scientific understandings of these ill-structured problems requires first and foremost making transparent this characteristic.

Similarly, the context of global poverty policymaking is also ill structured. Often the consequences of policy are not well known or the predictions are tentative. An ill-structured policy context often shows time-related problems: ill-structured contexts are changing, and often by the time a policy is implemented, it may no longer be the appropriate one. Highly politicized social problems become more ill structured the larger the numbers are, as in the case of poverty, and the more diverse the cultural settings where the poor live. The context of global poverty policy decisions is a changing global political landscape without the regulation of democratic institutions. New forms of global governance are still in their embryonic form, such as public-private partnerships. This global policy decision arena is clearly changing and ill structured; most often it is undemocratic. But decisionmakers must move on even when they are aware of such uncertainties and risks. In policy, not to decide is a decision in itself. Those in charge of dealing with global poverty, for instance, must make decisions, even if they know these may be tentative. The resulting policies about ill-structured problems are often forced decisions that cannot be said to be based on scientific evidence. We often hear that poverty policies are based on a scientific consensus among experts in the subject. Such a view, however, is misguided.

First, we can talk about scientific consensus only in cases of well-structured problems or among a community of experts who are aware of the tentative and partial character of the treatment of the problem--which is often the case among natural scientists within the milieu of academia, or type one experts. Rather, I agree with Turner that it is best to depict such policy decisions as being based on "consensus among scientists," an agreement about the most useful way to describe a complex problem. (23) Similarly, with regard to policy decisions, it is best to talk about a good decision "under the circumstances." In short, scientific, expert knowledge on these types of complex and ill-structured problems is science in the making.

Under such circumstances, peer review processes, the most common way to validate scientific claims, have serious limitations. Peer review may work well when it deals with scientific issues and is practiced by a narrow and close academic community with the self-understanding of the temporary or hypothetical character of the issue under consideration. "Peer review is a procedure of evaluation, a decision-making device, but it is one that places a (usually low) threshold on what is to be included in the literature for the purposes of scientific communication." (24) The low threshold is due to the shared understandings common among scientists that allows for the transparent distinction between science proper and facts-surrogate. Current communities of knowledge for development, and in particular the science-based policymaking originating in expertised institutions like the Bank, do not have those shared understandings, and thus the same validation system cannot be said to be a source of legitimacy. Attempts to bring in peer review to validate ill-structured policymaking over fact-surrogates hides the distinction between scientific consensus and consensus among scientists in an illegitimate way.

Sheila Jasanoff's analysis of institutions such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) reveals that peer review processes of regulatory science often hide controversies rather than expose them. (25) Science-based regulations cannot be lifted above politics. The legitimacy that peer review processes usually offer in the academic arena do not apply to the work of regulatory agencies. Not only are peer review processes not a guarantee against fraud, but they also tend to hide biases. Research perspectives can influence the way scientists approach the evaluation of specific topics. "Such biases would presumably carry over into scientific advice and peer review, since specialists skeptical of particular methodological approaches would be disinclined to accept their use by regulators." (26) Also, peers usually share the same sets of values, experiences, and education. Often expert referees belong to particular interests groups affiliated with the agency in question or have some sort of stake in the outcome of the decisionmaking. Furthermore, given that the legitimacy of knowledge in policy agencies has to be more justified than in the realm of academia, in-house researchers need a stronger backing from peer review than academics normally do. Arguably, what usually occurs in expertised bureaucracies are fluid, controversial, and politically motivated guidelines for validating science. (27)

In addition, there is increasing awareness that all peer review processes, even within the community of academics, are in themselves highly undemocratic. Assessments of the limitations of current knowledge management views find that many experts are structurally excluded from such processes of knowledge validation; these are often scientists from developing countries. (28) Further research in this direction may offer a deeper understanding of what types of experts are most often excluded and thus which views are most often deemed irrelevant or simply deemed nonknowledge. Applications of insights from the field of knowledge management would be one of such research agendas. In any event, seeking ways to sort out disagreements on knowledge about global poverty and development and to acknowledge the fact-surrogate character of codified knowledge about these complex issues are of the utmost importance, because knowledge production is simultaneously description and prescription about what poverty is and what should be done about it. Although I have no space to fully elaborate this point here, I argue that this is especially the case of quantitative knowledge. If measurements of social issues depend on the conventions associated with the definition of the object and the encoding of procedures, then such measurements are at the same time knowledge and action--that is, science and politics in the making. What gives specific characteristics of a problem their power of representing reality--for example, the problem of poverty--is the actual action we make of that recording. So statistics can be seen as an administrative activity involving the recording of various data leading to uncontestable figures on which we base our social and political debates, or as a branch of applied mathematics. At the same time, statistics are historically and culturally bounded constructions. (29)


Proponents of global governance structures and frameworks as well as critics of neoliberal economic globalization rightly identify the Bank as one leading actor in shaping the globalization debate and framing knowledge about development and poverty--debates that have direct consequences on the lives of billions of people. (30) In cases where the penumbra of knowledge claims is substantial, ideas can fell prey to "hegemonic consensus," a consensus among certain elite experts belonging to dominant expertised bureaucracies highly driven by political interests and the dominance of the cognitive values of dominant disciplines. (31) Knowledge for development and poverty is full of disagreements; at the most, we can talk about consensus among certain scientists, often a hegemonic consensus that ignores substantial epistemic, political, and ethical criticisms. (32)

Recent critiques raise very serious objections to the Bank's data on poverty trends; to the conversions performed by Bank's experts in assessing the number of people living in poverty; and to the causal relations between economic growth and poverty reduction. Critics also offer substantial arguments for revisiting the relationships between increasing poverty and rising inequalities and, in general, challenge the increasing tendency to promote, in an unproblematic way, evidence-based development studies. (33) Although all expert bodies are reluctant to submit to control mechanisms, these criticisms deserve attention. However, these cannot be settled until penumbras and expertised circularity are scrutinized through a broad and transparent debate about the way expert knowledge is sorted out from nonexpert knowledge. More generally, it is in the formation of such a boundary--the boundary between knowledge and nonknowledge, between knowledge and politics--where we must look further to reveal the shortcomings of knowledge for development. (34) Rather than leading to skepticism and ideological critique, such approaches have been helpful in improving the salience, legitimacy, and credibility of knowledge-based policymaking in many US and EU institutions. With regard to transnational issues, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered the best instance of science advice in the UN system, may be an example from which to draw some lessons for global poverty. (35)

This is an important pending research agenda, as the Bank is a site of coproduction, shaping both global knowledge and global politics. But such a research agenda and the current disagreements on the limits of the Bank's knowledge are not likely to be resolved satisfactorily unless critics engage in dialogue with Bank researchers, whose job is made far more difficult the more principals they have to respond to. It is time for serious engagement with the Knowledge Bank--a critical but constructive engagement few academics seem to pay the attention it deserves.


Asuncion Lera St. Clair is associate professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen, Norway. She is also senior research fellow at the Center for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo and secretary of the International Development Ethics Association (IDEA).

I thank Olav Korsnes, Desmond McNeill, Diane Stone, Stephen Turner, Des Gasper, Leig Wenar, and Kari Waerness, as well as two reviewers for useful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this article. Funding for this article was provided by the Research Council of Norway.

1. Clark A. Miller and Paul N. Edwards, "Introduction: The Globalization of Climate Science and Climate Politics," in Clark A. Miller and Paul N. Edwards, eds., Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001).

2. Devesh Kapur, "The Changing Anatomy of Governance of the World Bank," in Jonathan R. Pincus and Jeffrey A. Winters, eds., Reinventing the World Bank (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p, 65.

3. World Bank, DEC, Knowledge for Change (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2003).

4. Christopher Gilbert and David Vines, "The World Bank: An Overview of Some Major Issues," in Gilbert and Vines, eds., The World Bank: Structure and Policies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

5. Lyn Squire, "Why the World Bank Should Be Involved in Development Research," in Gilbert and Vines, The World Bank.

6. Ngaire Woods, "The Challenges of Multilateralism and Governance," in Gilbert and Vines, The World Bank.

7. Ibid., p. 139.

8. Gilbert and Vines, The World Bank, p. 29 (emphasis added).

9. As long as knowledge is viewed along positivist lines, something analogous occurs not only in economics, but in other disciplines as well.

10. Diane Stone, "The 'Knowledge Bank' and the Global Development Network," Global Governance 9, no. 1 (2003), p. 43.

11. This argument is move fully addressed in Asuncion Lera St. Clair, "Global Poverty: The Co-Production of Knowledge and Politics," Journal of Global Social Policy 6, no. 1 (2006).

12. David Guston, Between Politics and Science: Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); David Cash, William Clark, Frank Alcock, Nancy Dickson, Noelle Eckley, and Jill Jager, "Salience, Credibility, Legitimacy and Boundaries: Linking Research, Assessment and Decision Making," in Sujatha Raman and David H. Guston, eds., Science Boundaries Policy: New Research (forthcoming).

13. For example, a White Paper on Governance released by the European Union includes concerns for accountability, plurality, and integrity, that is, for the democratization of expertise. See Simon Joss and Sergio Belluchi, Participatory Technology Assessments: European Perspectives (London: Center for the Study of Democracy, and TA-Swiss, 2002); Sheila Jasanoff, "Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science," Minerva 41, no. 3 (2003).

14. Joseph Stiglitz, "Ethics, Economic Advice, and Economic Policy," (2001).

15. Stephen Turner, Liberal Democracy 3.0 (London: Sage, 2004).

16. Ibid., p. 25.

17. Ibid., p. 32.

18. Stone, "The 'Knowledge Bank' and the Global Development Network."

19. David Guston, "Stabilizing the Boundary Between US Politics and Science: The Role of the Office of Technology Transfer as a Boundary Organization," Social Studies of Science 29, no. 1 (1999): 87-111.

20. Alex Wilks, "Development Through the Looking Glass: The Knowledge Bank in Cyber-Space," paper prepared for the Sixth Oxford International Conference on Education and Development, "Knowledge, Values and Policy," September 2001,

21. Turner, Liberal Democracy 3.0.

22. I derive this term from Stephen Turner, "Truth and Decision," in Daryl Chubin and Ellen W. Chu, eds., Science Off the Pedestal: Social Perspectives on Science and Technology (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1989).

23. Turner, Liberal Democracy 3.0.

24. Ibid., p. 91.

25. Sheila Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policy Makers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), and Jasanoff, Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

26. Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch, p. 81.

27. Ibid.

28. Steve Fuller, Knowledge Management Foundations (Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002).

29. See, for example, Alain Desrosieres, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, trans. Camille Naish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

30. Bob Deacon, "The Politics of Global Social Policy," paper presented at the UNRISD Conference on Social Knowledge and International Policy Making: Exploring the Linkages, April 2004, Geneva,; David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004); Peter Townsend, "Poverty, Social Exclusion and Social Polarization: The Need to Construct an International Welfare State," in Peter Townsend and David Gordon, eds., World Poverty: New Policies to Defeat an Old Enemy (Bristol: Policy Press, 2002).

31. Morten Boas and Desmond McNeill, Multilateral Institutions: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2003); Diane Stone, "Transfer Agents and Global Networks in the 'Transnationalization' of Policy," Journal of European Public Policy 11, no. 3 (2004): 545.

32. See United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2003 (New York: United Nations, 2003), box 2.3.

33. See, respectively, Andrew Sumner, "Epistemology and 'Evidence' in Development Studies: A. Review of Dollar and Kraay," Third World Quarterly 25, no. 6, (2004): 1167; Robert H. Wade, "On the Causes of Increasing World Poverty and Inequality, or Why the Matthew Effect Prevails," New Political Economy 9, no. 2 (2004); Jan Vandemoortele, "Are We Really Reducing Poverty?" UNDP Working Paper, Bureau for Development Policy (New York: United Nations, 2002); Thomas Pogge and Sanjay Reddy, "Unknown: The Extent, Distribution, and Trend of Global Income Poverty," 2003,

34. I examine these issues more in depth in St. Clair, "Global Poverty."

35. National Academies, Knowledge and Diplomacy: Science Advice in the United Nations System (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002).
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Author:St. Clair, Asuncion Lera
Publication:Global Governance
Geographic Code:0BANK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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