Review of Catherine Weaver’s Hypocrisy Trap

So while I’m updating the “About” sections and building up this site, here is a review of Hypocrisy Trap: The World Bank and the poverty of reform.

Why has the World Bank, the world’s major development agency acted as it has throughout its history? Why does it claim to dream of a “world full of poverty” and demand stringent neo-liberal reforms? Catherine Weaver does not simply state the different hypocrite acts of the Bank but examines it using constructivist and sociological theory. Her book addresses the difficulty of internal organizational and cultural change.

Weaver sees hypocrisy in the World Bank as a predictable feature in a large international organization like the World Bank especially when viewed using resource dependency (viewing the competitive environment) and sociological institutionalism (the authorising environment). The Bank’s strive for organizational survival and legitimacy comes about when answering a multiple of actors in its competitive and authorising environments.

Many critics of the Bank simply see the Bank as unable to achieve the goals it sets and help its client states. Weaver however launches into an in-depth description of two “worlds”—the World’s Bank and the Bank’s World. The former indicates the complex structure of the Bank include its donor states, client states, its private capital markets and the watchdog Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).Weaver’s examination shows the various pressures exerted on the Bank and the degree of American influence on the bank.

Inasmuch as the Bank is pressured from many sides, Weaver notes a strong degree of operational authority and autonomy in the “Bank’s World”. This stems from the complexity of its operations, some which are not open to extensive review. Second the diversity of member states allows the Bank some autonomy and most importantly, the Bank holds a strong monopoly over development related knowledge. This control of ideas is coupled with a technocratic and economic rationality, reinforced with the influx of Western trained neo-classical economists. Bank ideological coherence is also maintained by the editing of reports to align with neo-liberal beliefs. It is within these strong intellectual norms that Weaver examines World Bank reforms.

Contrary to some critics the Bank did engage in reforms in the 1990s. Weaver covers the Strategic Compact reform and the emergence of the governance and anti corruption agenda. The Strategic Compact arose as a need to transform the Bank back as a effort to re-orientate itself as the premier development agency, after external criticism and an internal evaluation. The first aim of streamlining bureaucracy was easily reached however the aim of being more “poverty focused and accountable” came at odds with the technical, economic and apolitical rationality. New efforts such listening to clients and conducting consultations clashed with existing approval culture. Overall, changes occurred but mainly under the deeply embedded culture.

Similarly, the focus on good governance was not that effective with apolitical stance amongst staff. Furthermore, the dominating neo-liberal mindset resulted in governance issues framed with economic objectives in mind. Just as with the Strategic Compact, Weaver notes that governance reform challenged the Bank’s conventional method of conducting business. Weaver does qualify that the constant need to placate the demands of various external groups also hampered Bank reform. Weaver however noted that the Bank deep culture will prevent any productive change.

Weaver thus delves away from the normal criticism of the World Bank to explain the reasons of Bank actions and activities. She shed a new light by noted that such hypocrisy is a tenet in any large international organisation. In order for any improvement to the World Bank, it is not simply the initiation of change but the need to re work the internal settings of the world’s major development group.

Author’s note: This was published in the very first Global Politics Magazine, not the one now owned by Miles.

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