So, what is the World Bank’s business model?

Picture by

Picture by

By Felix Stein

The World Bank has gotten increasingly involved in global health in recent decades. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimates that in 2016, the Bank provided roughly 5% of the roundabout $37.6 billion of worldwide development assistance for health. In addition, Bank representatives sit on the boards of various health focused trust funds, such as GAVI and The Global Fund. The history and effects of the this involvement are currently being investigated (amongst others by our team of researchers in Edinburgh) and they are frequently the topic of intense debate by development and health policy analysts[i]. As part of these debates, it might be helpful to have a rough idea of how the World Bank functions internally, if only so as to understand some of the institutional constraints and affordances with which much of its staff operates.

As a brief caveat, it is worth mentioning that the anthropology of corporations has shown time and again that corporate institutions are profoundly heterogeneous in nature[ii]. As a general rule, employees who come from different countries, ethnic and educational backgrounds and who work in diverse business units spread across the globe tend to have highly divergent understandings of the proper purposes and techniques of their jobs. In fact, contemporary corporations are so large, that a sense of unity and cohesion among their staff is heavily reliant on having read the same key documents, employing similar epistemic and rhetorical techniques, and engaging in a series of unifying ritual practices[iii]. With over ten thousand employees and more than 120 offices, the World Bank Group is unlikely to be an exception to this rule. So rather than providing a definitive picture of it, I will here just draw on a few emic concepts and internal documents so as to sketch out one of the ways in which it can reasonably be described.

The very term “The World Bank” may already be problematic. Commentators who use it often speak about any of the organisations within “The World Bank Group” i.e. any one of the five legally and financially independent institutions that constitute it (see figure 1). Often this makes sense, since four out of these five institutions[iv] are supposed to act according to a single overarching strategy[v]. Introduced in 2013 by Group President Kim, the strategy document is part description of the status quo and part prescription of how the Group is supposed to operate under his helm. It declares that the Group as a whole should work in close partnership towards the same, explicitly stated goals of

  1. Ending extreme poverty by 2030 (understood as reducing the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day to 3%)
  2. Promoting shared prosperity (understood as fostering income growth of the bottom 40% of the population in every developing country)

The strategy also postulates that “collaboration across the Group will be increased systematically” via shared policies, practices, new metrics for measuring institutional collaboration, etc.[vi]

Figure 1