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International policies

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30


Alex Wilks – Coordinator, The Bretton Woods Project
Lord Desai – Director, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, LSE

John Young – Programme Manager, RAPID, ODI

  1. John Young introduced the eighth and last meeting in the series 'Does Evidence Matter?'. The topic of this meeting was the role of evidence in international and transnational development policy processes.
  2. Alex Wilks presented himself as closer to the activist side than the analyst side of the research-policy spectrum. He went on to describe different types of international policy processes that he and other researchers/activists might engage with - including world/regional summits, agency strategies, research by academics and think tanks, and activist publications.
  3. Activist engagement in policy processes can be seen through two different lenses:
    1. as a matter of producing and presenting evidence in a 'truth to power' manner; or
    2. as a matter of improving the bargaining power of those whose voices are seldom heard.
  4. It is frequently difficult for grassroots organisations to access and influence international high-level policy processes. Perhaps adding to the difficulty of lower-level actors is the fact that the World Bank in many respects has a position resembling a monopoly on certain aspects of international development policy. A very high number of development agency staff read and use Bank reports, especially the annual World Development Report (WDR).
  5. What are WDRs? Are they global academic syntheses? Bank policy statements or think pieces? Or are they simply self-promotional exercises? Brendan Martin has commented that "[WDRs are] highly leveraged interventions in the policy markets". Wolfensohn has emphasised that WDRs are not meant to be blueprints but rather documents contributing to international debate.
  6. How was the Poverty WDR produced? There were a number of background studies (including Voices of the Poor), wide consultation in all regions, and an e-conference. In the final stages of preparing the Report, confrontations between the WDR team and the Bank, plus the Bank's shareholder governments led to the resignation of the lead-author, Kanbur.
  7. Alex summed up some lessons from this experience:
    1. Power politics are hard to remove but easier to reveal when outside stakeholders have clear standing in the policy process
    2. Final report insulated by controversy over resignation
    3. Process improvements have not been maintained in subsequent years
    4. WDR status still unclear: all things to all people?
  8. The Voices of the Poor study consulted 60,000 people worldwide. Some of the researchers on the Voices project have published criticisms, pointing out that there were multiple filters before the supposedly 'unmediated' voices of these people appeared in the final publication.
  9. Alex discussed the experience of the World Commission on Dams which the the World Bank helped initiated following significant and well-organised external pressure. Initially, the Bank reacted to the criticism by producing a desk-based review of dams, which however did not satisfy the critics. The Bank subsequently appointed 12 commissioners who represented a broad range of groups. The result was an independent and innovative process that provided an opportunity for dam-affected people to get their voices heard. It is important to note that the independent and innovative nature of the recommendations also meant that the recommendations met with some resistance in the Bank.
  10. In conclusion, Alex showed an excerpt of the World Bank's Staff newsletter which challenged the internal 'thought police' in the institution, and cited researchers from the Voices for the Poor exercise who called for 'No generalisation without representation'. Future international policy processes should have Purpose and process clarifications and guarantees, including stakeholder co decision-making, not just evidence extraction. This will help insulate the processes from problematic institutional incentives. More information on the Knowledge Bank and WDRs can be found online.
  11. Lord Desai stated that in his view, evidence does not matter, but ideas do. To illustrate this he used the example of Keynes' General Theory. Keynes' idea was far ahead of the data-collection that was needed to back it up - yet in spite of this lack of 'evidence', his idea was hugely influential.
  12. The problem now is that there is no single dominant paradigm, there are a myriad of ideas. We all seem to believe that answers can be found by huge and ongoing public meetings. But the wide participation in public debates has in some respects led to an overcrowded arena with a phantasmagoria of Platonic ideas about development. Moreover, it seems that the more inarticulate the proposition, the greater its authority.
  13. In such an overcrowded and over-intrusive domain, it is difficult to see what function is served by organised policy making. He described himself as a cheerful pessimist - doubting that much of it will make any difference, but believing that development will happen despite our best efforts rather than because of them. It would be far more effective simply to hand out money to every poor person, than spend billions on aid policies and aid machinery.
  14. Lord Desai then recounted his experience of taking part in the development of the UN's Human Development Index. The need for a new indicator for development was driven by questions about the outcomes of structural adjustment, and whether it was possible to find a better measure for development than GDP. The initial idea used a measure of remaining life-expectancy as a non-monetary indicator of welfare. This simple idea was then developed into the human development index (HDI) which includes only 3 dimensions and 4 variables. The value of the index lies in its simplicity. This made it usable by anyone who wanted to use it.
  15. In conclusion, Lord Desai pointed out that development indicators, such as the HDI, are measures and not causes. Moreover, they are not primarily based on evidence but on ideas.
  16. Comments from the floor:
    1. Even if you have clear and unambiguous evidence that is known by all actors involved in a policy process, this will not necessarily lead to an evidence-based policy. Firstly, political factors and resource prioritisation are more important factors in determining policy formulation and outcomes. Secondly, of course, the evidence is never clear and unambiguous.
    2. Evidence is never produced in a perfect state of neutrality; it is always interpreted by the different people who use it.
    3. The politics surrounding policy processes are very important. Even if there is evidence that a project has been successful (such as a couple of projects in Mozambique that aimed to simply hand out money to the poor), the evidence will not automatically be taken into account. If it conflicts with political interests it is more likely to be ignored.
    4. Policy processes are not necessarily improved through as wide a consultation as possible, because not everyone is competent to comment on everything. We need to be sceptical of the idea that the process matters. What really matters is the outcome.
    5. Let us try to apply the hypotheses of the speakers to a practical example. If you were Gordon Brown, what evidence - if any - would you need to garner political support for the International Financing Facility?


The topic of the eighth and final meeting in the series 'Does Evidence Matter?' was the role of evidence in international and transnational development policy processes. It covers questions like:

  • What is unique about international and trans-national policy processes?
  • How to strike a balance between local and international voice and capacity?
  • How can research contribute?