Too Global to Fail: The World Bank At the Intersection of National and Global Public Policy
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
It can be and has been argued that improvements in human welfare achieved over the last few decades have been purchased, at least in part, on credit—that the net gain is less than it seems, perhaps even negative, given the scale of our accumulated liabilities. In part, this is because gains made at the level of households, communities and countries have not been adequately insured against global public ‘bads’—transnational problems whose solution or mitigation generally calls for international cooperation.
While the era of big treaties might be receding into the past, international cooperation can and does work at a more practical level, given adequate resources and effective international institutions to support it. Undoubtedly too few resources are being applied presently to the production of global public goods such as climate change mitigation, infectious disease control and refugee management. However, as the figure below illustrates, a growing and now substantial share of both bilateral and multilateral aid is being spent on such things.
Much of this aid for global public goods goes to and through, or else depends upon the complementary actions of, multilateral development organisations. The provision of several major such goods depends not so much upon direct international cooperation as upon parallel action by individual countries, mediated by multilateral organisations working across those countries to help produce an outcome in some significant quantity. Pre-eminent among such organisations, for many though not all global problems, is the World Bank.
So, would it be true to say that the World Bank puts the delivery of global public goods anywhere near the heart of its operations?
We have gathered some quite diverse perspectives on this question in a new book, Too Global to Fail: the World Bank at the Intersection of National and Global Public Policy in 2025, which forms part of the World Bank’s Directions in Development series. It contains views from former senior staff of the bank, young professionals inside and outside the bank, academic researchers and others. A factor in our decision to co-edit and contribute to this book, though not the only one, was our experience of working together, on opposite sides of the bilateral-multilateral divide, on the design and early implementation of the Bank-managed Climate Investment Funds from 2008 to 2010 or so.
It was around 2008, curiously, that international discussion about the financing and delivery of global public goods began to fall away, after being quite active for the seven-year period bookended by Inge Kaul and colleagues’ influential work on global public goods in 1999, and the 2006 report of the International Task Force on Global Public Goods, which began its deliberations in 2003 (one of our contributors, Scott Barrett, advised the latter body). It is not at all clear why interest waned. It might be that the increasingly dominant Millennium Development Goals narrative, with its heavy emphasis on household-level goals, swept it aside. It might be that rising aid volumes made the financing problem less pressing. In any case, now that a post-2015 international development framework (with a stronger emphasis on ‘sustainability’) is in prospect, and now that aid volumes must be assumed unlikely to maintain the rate of growth achieved in the previous decade, one would expect questions about the financing of global public goods, and about institutional mediation for their delivery, to return to the fore.