In June, I attended a new event format launched by the World Bank Institute (WBI). The Innovative Cities: Global Dialogue brings together mayors, corporate interests, some fig-leaf activists and a large number of Bank staffers (and presumably academic researchers as well, though I saw very few) to discuss urban development challenges and opportunities. UN-Habitat and the Bank’s own Cities Alliance have been organizing similar gigs for years, so WBI is a little late… but better late than never.
I just finished watching the short clip on the event produced by WBI and circulated among participants earlier today. I am aghast… the Dialogue that I went to in June produced few new substantive insights. It did not, for instance, shed much light on concrete success factors to truly sustainable (triple bottom line?) partnerships. Nor did it raise the critical question to what extent, if at all, these can be generalized across regions. And what about urban democracies versus corporate machine politics?
Instead, almost all of the hand-picked panelists proclaimed ubiquitous urban win-win scenarios. Except for some of the mayors (thankfully!) and, if I recall correctly, two comments from the floor, speakers eclipsed the trade-offs inherent in urban economic growth–especially in the poorest countries that the Bank is allegedly so concerned about–by assiduously ignoring a wealth of empirical studies documenting challenges faced by urban micro initiatives that campaign for more equitable access to social services, some of which result directly from the elitist quest for “economic growth” (or is this now being used as a politically more digestible proxy for employment generation?).
During lunch break, I heard several critical voices whose concerns are echoed in my critique above. I was also approached by a fellow with a video camera who asked me for a 30-second statement on the morning session. I told him that my comments would not be too charming and that he might want to seek out more benevolent interviewees. No, he replied, critical perspectives were “exactly what [we] want to hear” in order to “produce a more balanced documentation.” Needless to say, I guess, that for some strange reason they aren’t featured in the clip.
All in all, an opportunity missed. Or maybe not: lunch was great. And economic growth, WBI-type, rules.
As a relatively young researcher and friend and colleague of Daniel, I was most surprised about my non-reaction after reading his latest post. So the Bank organises another workshop and produces a fancy video to spread the ‘results’ of said workshop and its broader neoliberal message that remains largely unchallenged. Big surprise…But my own shoulder-shrugging, ‘what-can-you-do-about-it?’ and ‘discourse’ mumbling reaction is equally scary. After a few years of development work and research and the feeling that more critical material has been published about the Bank in the last couple of years, I have both internalised my critical stance towards this institution-but also the feeling of hopelessness. The Bank seems to be immune to any critique-especially outside economic debates and approaches. No matter how many social scientists, anthropologists etc critically engage with the Bank it rarely leads to more than another article in a peer-reviewed journal or a nice anecdote to share with students or colleagues. And Daniel’s example does not require hours of research, an intricate knowledge of development or a superior critical mind-like many politicians and institutions the Bank uses basic ‘spin’-invite the rights crowd, frame it correctly and produce professional communication material. Maybe there will be a critical blog post here and there-but the Bank could not care less. Which leaves me with two questions really: 1. Given the amount of spin who is the target audience of such events and outputs? Are there aid bureaucrats in bilateral donor organisations who watch this approvingly because the famous ‘tax payers’ money’ is seemingly well spent? Journalists? Who else? 2. How can I survive the next 30 years of academic live if I have already given up on challenging/criticising/influencing the Bank and have accepted the power of the neoliberal discourse in development?
Don’t despair, Tobias… I’ve received three off-the-record (of course) replies from WB staff today, two of whom had also attended the event. All three felt that the video was one-sided; one of them remarked that WBI should have invested less in the production of this clip and more in bringing in additional voices from cities in the Global South. I couldn’t agree more.