The most important thing about Robert Zoellick’s speech at Georgetown yesterday is that the president of the World Bank gave a speech about research – development economics research, that is -- in the run-up to the Bank’s annual meeting. Could this mean that he is seeing the writing on the wall?! That the bank is to become in this century less about pushing out loans and more about sharing knowledge? I say bravo: a speech about research that is not academic but asks the big questions about growth and policy – about research that is practical and potentially actionable.
In the speech he decries (it’s subtle but read and you’ll see) the obsession with randomized controlled trials as the only proper method of evaluation for its shortcomings (micro, lack of scalability, external validity); endorses the need for careful study of why and when and how has industrial policy worked (and isn’t empiricist Bill Easterly over-reacting?); and worries about the durability of the East Asian model of export-led growth transformation (which will perhaps unfairly be read as another attack on China’s undervalued renminbi?!).
What about the World Bank’s role? He announced open data, open access, lots of sharing and networking. But two big points are missing. First, isn’t it time the World Bank lent its technical and financial support to the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (resisted so far on the apparent grounds that the Bank can do evaluation itself far better so why subsidize independent evaluation done in and for developing countries); and why hasn’t and doesn’t the Bank outsource more of its research, as Dani Rodrik notes, to developing country institutions? Why after 60 years is there no real support for anything that looks like an influential policy research think tank in Africa, South Asia or Latin America? Why not World Bank support for the Hewlett-Gates-IDRC Think Tank Initiative doing just that?