The World Bank likes to sleep easy. "Our Dream is a World Free of Poverty" proclaims a seven-storey banner in the atrium of the Washington DC headquarters. A book of the same name has just been released. But at the beginning of 1999, the institution's senior management were having sleepless nights. The Bank had been severely criticized by activists and development observers for riding roughshod over the protests of the people most severely affected by its policies. Around the same time, work had just begun on the Bank's World Development Report 2000, a report on poverty that sets the long term intellectual and policy agenda at the Bank and its beholden aid organizations, like USAID. It was decided that the Bank could use this opportunity both to respond to its critics and to alleviate its executives' insomnia.
Thus was conceived the Voices of the Poor series. On paper, it is worthy -- a one million dollar effort to learn about the conditions of poor people throughout the world by talking to them. It involved consultations with over forty thousand people - many in the most extreme conditions of deprivation, who volunteered their time to talk to Bank consultants. As a result two books have been published, with a third on the way, and the World Development Report 2000 has been sent to development professionals everywhere to persuade them that the Bank really does care.
It is hard to see what we have got for our million dollars -- and it is our million dollars, for the Bank is largely publicly funded, and the board of governors is comprised of elected finance ministers from country shareholders. In essence, we have learned that "the poor don't have much money, but much worse is that they don't have much power. Women and minorities have it particularly bad". To have spent so much money to discover this seems fabulously profligate.
The Bank, however, has got a great deal of bang for our buck. By appearing to listen, it has been able to respond to its critics. "Here we have the authentic voices of poor people saying how they themselves see and understand poverty", said Nick Stern, Chief Economist at the Bank.
That many of the people questioned in the Voices of the Poor project had little choice in setting the intellectual agenda, and that a good few are actively organizing against the Bank has rarely been mentioned. Little surprise, since authenticity is a useful weapon in the Bank's arsenal, and has been repeatedly deployed to defend its actions in the face of recent street protests.
Through these reports, the Bank has also been able to lay blame for the persistence of poverty onto the shoulders of the governments in impoverished countries. That these governments were doing more or less what the Bank told them -- reducing spending on social programs, charging people for access to basic healthcare and education, cutting entitlements -- seems to have slipped the Bank's collective mind.
The insistence that it is the corruption of states, not the Bank, which is to blame may be connected to the Bank's forthcoming strategies on "good governance". The thrust of these new schemes is to encourage developing countries to be "more transparent" by treating government operations as free market enterprises. Specifically, this means opening up public service markets to foreign multinationals. The non sequitur here is breathtaking. There is nothing intrinsic to free markets that discourages corruption. Indeed the vast sums of cash wielded by transnationals has traditionally been a recipe for more corruption, not less.
The World Bank, then, has produced a comforting, soporific set of stories about "the Poor" that allows it to carry on with business as usual. This is a simulation of poverty, a dreamworld glancingly real, with a methodological pedigree robust enough to suggest that this is really what goes on outside Bank resident representative offices. But the Bank is the Macavity of the development world. When a crime's discovered, the Bank's not there. This is hardly surprising. By being the foremost producer of "knowledge" about development, the Bank manages to be judge and jury in deliberations about international capitalist failure. It cannot simultaneously imagine itself as culpable.
This is why the Voices of the Poor project, and the World Development Report are precisely the kinds of knowledge the Bank needs to be able to dream its little dreams of poverty-elimination, in which the Bank takes no responsibility for crisis, but plenty of credit for the occasional success. Alternative knowledges do exist, though. The streets of DC, Prague, and, of course, Seattle were filled with them. And as these voices of the poor get louder, the Bank will find its sweet dreams harder to come by.