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Innovation at the World Bank
Alex Steffen, 6 Jun 05

The World Bank has its share of problems, and seems to be moving backwards, but as we've written before, it's worth noting when they do something right, or at least try to. Here are two examples:

1) The Bank has announced the 2005 winners of its Development Marketplace competition.

Some seem quite quite good ideas, like a South African project to use the wood from invasive tree species to create eco-friendly coffins in areas hard-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic (what has created a secondary wave of deforestation as people attempt to properly honor their dead, making life even more difficult for the survivors). Another creates a Tiger-friendly wood certification program to help check the plight of the Siberian tiger in the Russian Far East. A third looks to establish demonstration farms in rural Brazil, where farmers can both learn organic, sustainable agricultural techniques and find access to microlending programs.

Do small grants like these make up for the malignant lending practices of larger Bank programs? No. But it is innovation in the right direction.

2) One of the worst Bank programs has been its dam-building campaign. I am of the opinion that Big Hydro is generally bad tech, but even here there may be methods for doing things better. The NYT has an interesting piece on the challenges Bank workers face as they try to reform their dam-building practices (largely because of extreme pressure from NGOs, it should be noted). I'm not sold, but that the debate is being had seems to me a sign of progress.

Stil, still, I dream of what might be if an institution as powerful as the World Bank launched itself on a new course, offering instead of tinkering at the margins, to rededicate itself wholesale to a new approach of livelihood-based development, microfinance, innovation- and solution-diffusion, and support for democratization. I'm not a huge fan of the World Bank. I'd be first in line to applaud a World(changing) Bank.

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Alex, thanks for this post. You often point out the power of networked individuals and small groups. Rather than envision one large "institution as powerful as the World Bank," why not envision a financial equivalent of "The Second Superpower"? Why couldn't small, dispersed micro-credit organizations network to form a kind of guild? Amazingly difficult to pull off in practice, but there's been so much progress in social networking and linking that it might be possible now.

Posted by: David Foley on 6 Jun 05



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