It took the World Bank 20 years to set up an evaluation outfit — a new paper by Michele Alacevich tells the story of how that came to pass. It’s a story about, amongst other things, the tension between academia and programs, between context-specific knowledge and generalizable lessons. The abstract:
Since its birth in 1944, the World Bank has had a strong focus on development projects. Yet, it did not have a project evaluation unit until the early 1970s. An early attempt to conceptualize project appraisal had been made in the 1960s by Albert Hirschman, whose undertaking raised high expectations at the Bank. Hirschman’s conclusions—published first in internal Bank reports and then, as a book in 1967—disappointed many at the Bank, primarily because they found it impractical. Hirschman wanted to offer the Bank a new vision by transforming the Bank’s approach to project design, project management and project appraisal. What the Bank expected from Hirschman, however, was not a revolution but an examination of the Bank’s projects and advice on how to make project design and management more measurable, controllable, and suitable for replication. The history of this failed collaboration provides useful insights on the unstable equilibrium between operations and evaluation within the Bank. In addition, it shows that the Bank actively participated in the development economics debates of the 1960s. This should be of interest for development economists today who reflect on the future of their discipline emphasizing the need for a non-dogmatic approach to development. It should also be of interest for the Bank itself, which is stressing the importance of evaluation for effective development policies. The history of the practice of development economics, using archival material, can bring new perspectives and help better understand the evolution of this discipline.
And this from the introduction:
Furthermore, the Bank all but ignored the final outcome of his project, the 1967 book, and especially disliked its first chapter…. In particular, Hirschman’s insistence on uncertainty as a structural element in the decision-making process did not fit in well with the operational drive of Bank economists and engineers.
Why’d they ignore it?
The Bank, Hirschman wrote, should avoid the “air of pat certainty” that emanated from project prospects and instead expose the uncertainties underlying them, exploring the whole range of possible outcomes. Moreover, the Bank should take into account the distributional and, more generally, the social and political effects of its lending.
It seems that one of the primary lessons of studying development economics is that many if not most of the biggest arguments you hear today already took place a generation ago. As with fashion, trends come and go, and ultimately come again. The arguments weren’t necessarily solved, they were just pushed aside when something newer and shinier came along. Even the argument against bold centrally-planned strategies — and in favor of facing up to the inherent uncertainty of complex systems — has been made before. It failed to catch on, for reasons of politics and personality. Ultimately the systems in place may not want to hear results that downplay their importance and potency the grand scheme of things. On that note it seems that if history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, it will at least continue to have some strong echoes of past debates.