July 15, 2024

World Bank Is Opening Its Treasure Chest of Data

THE Piper PA-31 Navajo took off into the sultry Miami morning and streaked southward toward the Caribbean. High over Haiti, the cameras inside began to snap.

Behind this reconnaissance mission was, of all things, a financial institution: the World Bank, symbol of globalization and, to many, the hubris of wealthy nations.

But this was hardly some clandestine operation. On the contrary, the aerial photographs taken that January morning in 2010, shortly after a powerful earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince, were soon uploaded to the Web for all to see, along with an invitation to help World Bank specialists assess the damage and figure out how to aid Haiti.

The appeal marked a radical departure for the often close-to-the-vest World Bank, which, like its brother, the International Monetary Fund, has been called everything from arrogant to inept. The World Bank, you see, wants the world to know that it is finally opening up, albeit slowly and, at times, a bit painfully.

The I.M.F. has grabbed the hot headlines lately, having become a tabloid fixture after its leader, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was accused of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in a Midtown Manhattan hotel. That allegation began unraveling on Friday, when prosecutors themselves questioned the victim’s credibility. Not that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is going back to his old job; last week, the fund named Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, as its next leader.

But while the I.M.F. is busy with scandal and the debt crisis now shaking Europe, officials at the World Bank’s headquarters here are confronting some existential questions, including the big one: What exactly are we doing here?

The World Bank’s traditional role has been to finance specific projects that foster economic development, whereas the I.M.F.’s goal is to safeguard the global monetary system. But many people, particularly in the developing world, have long questioned whether the economic prescriptions that these two lofty institutions hand down from Washington — essentially: liberalize, privatize and deregulate — have done anything but advance the interests of wealthy nations like the United States. That the I.M.F. is now championing deeply unpopular austerity measures for Greece, where street protests continued last week, only sharpens that point.

So it might come as a surprise that the president of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, a career diplomat and member of the Republican foreign-policy elite, argues that the most valuable currency of the World Bank isn’t its money — it is its information.

Created in 1944 and, by custom, headed by an American, the World Bank initially helped finance the reconstruction of war-torn Europe. Since then, it has extended many trillions in loans for a wide variety of projects, be they institutions like schools and hospitals, infrastructure like roads or, controversially, environmentally unfriendly projects like coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric dams. Along the way the World Bank, like the I.M.F., has tinkered with entire economies, sometimes with disastrous results.

Yet the Haiti flights — which cost about the same as a World Bank report — were the harbinger of a quiet revolution now gripping this aloof institution.

More than 600 engineers in 21 countries analyzed the data collected over Haiti, and their conclusions — essentially what to rebuild and where — have since been used by the Haitian government, relief organizations, companies and myriad others.

“It was like the cowboy West in terms of the boundaries of the project and what we were able to do,” says Stuart P. D. Gill, a computational cosmologist and project coordinator for the bank’s disaster reduction and recovery labs.

Long regarded as a windowless ivory tower, the World Bank is opening its vast vault of information. True, the bank still lends roughly $170 billion annually. But it is increasingly competing for influence and power with Wall Street, national governments and smaller regional development banks, who have as much or more money to offer. It is no longer the only game in town.

And so Mr. Zoellick, 57, is wielding knowledge — lots of it. For more than a year, the bank has been releasing its prized data sets, currently giving public access to more than 7,000 that were previously available only to some 140,000 subscribers — mostly governments and researchers, who pay to gain access to it.

Those data sets contain all sorts of information about the developing world, whether workaday economic statistics — gross domestic product, consumer price inflation and the like — or arcana like how many women are breast-feeding their children in rural Peru.

It is a trove unlike anything else in the world, and, it turns out, highly valuable. For whatever its accuracy or biases, this data essentially defines the economic reality of billions of people and is used in making policies and decisions that have an enormous impact on their lives.

Mr. Zoellick says the bank’s newfound openness is part of a push to embrace competition, both internally and externally, as it tries to reduce poverty and foster economic development.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/business/global/03world.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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