Institutional Challenges

An unsurprising initial challenge I faced as I began my time at the World Bank was in convincing people that a philosopher could make productive contributions to development policy. While the WDR2015 team was diverse in our areas of expertise, as far as I’m aware there hadn’t been a philosopher as part of the core writing team of a WDR. before, and people reasonably were suspicious about whether a philosopher could offer practical guidance. While there are a variety of disciplinary backgrounds represented at the World Bank, economists are the most prevalent, and there is not a history of philosophers being around. I worked hard to demonstrate my value to the team early on. Subject-matter expertise in social norms was helpful here, as was my experience working with UNICEF, especially on issues surrounding sanitation. Broadly, though, this meant that I initially focused my concerns on very' practical issues, always doing what I could to describe issues as an economist would. On more than one occasion, I would enter a meeting with other Bank staff, and people would see my beard and ask, “So are you the philosopher?” with a bemused look.

This stopped happening once it became clear that I had useful things to contribute, and I could hold my own while talking about policy and measurement issues in program evaluations. In particular, it helped that I could more concretely speak to how some issue would tie into a particular aspect of the project cycle, or be responsive to common constraints that projects faced. Especially at first, any time I could choose between targeting a more abstract or a more concrete level of discussion, I opted for the concrete. This helped to convince people that my head wasn’t in the clouds and that I had thought carefully about the material and political details of a development problem. This bought me some capital for debates where I needed to make a more abstract point or to rely on normative principles outside of the norm for economists to consider.

A wonderful surprise about the World Bank was that, at least in the unit in which I was working, it was remarkably like being at a top-notch university. Most of the people I worked with had PhDs, and many had been academics before turning to development work. There were more talks than I could possibly have gone to, and on a huge variety of topics. There were workgroups on all kinds of social, political, and environmental issues. And there was a huge amount of diversity across a number of dimensions. There is even something like a faculty senate as part of the governance structure. This provided for a great deal of internal dissent and deliberation. I had expected a more corporate environment, and while there were certainly some meetings that felt more like that, in general it felt like an academic think tank with an immediate set of interests for the use of its research.

An important difference with the World Bank compared to a university, which I had not quite anticipated, is that there is a much bigger sense that you are a representative of the institution. On the one hand, any email I sent to someone—whether a famous academic, or a policy person, or a government official—from my email address was sure to get a reply. Sending the same email from my academic account had vastly lower yields. My role as a core author on the World Development Report (WDR.) meant I would be listened to. But it also meant that I was much more careful about how I expressed myself in my World Bank role than in my academic role. Likewise, if I were writing about some country’s policies or attempted to run a pilot project in that country as an academic, that country wouldn’t care. Doing the exact same work in a World Bank capacity may cause that country to decide that they do not want me to do it and ask that I refrain (or not give me permission to run the study). A country can largely ignore it if an academic were to publish something negative about it, but it is a much bigger deal if the World Bank says something negative. Though I never felt any pressure from my Bank colleagues or my supervisors to say or not say particular things, it was clear to me that there were extra responsibilities in speaking as Bank staff that I’ve never felt when speaking as a professor. In part this is because the World Bank is an enormously influential institution, but also because there is, in general, more of an understanding that academics speak for themselves and not for their universities.

This sense of responsibility really shaped the work we did. First, simply in virtue of it being the World Development Report, what we produced was going to be widely read by development professionals. WDRs can help frame the conversation about new development policy, and so it was important to produce the best work that we could, in the fairly short period of time that we had to produce it. Second, it meant that we had to make sure that we were offering useful tools for the broadest constituency possible. Third, it meant we had to have extremely high standards of evidence for anything we included. This was an especially stark difference from what I was used to in publishing philosophy. Philosophers are pretty free to make conjectural statements, or explore a possible causal story, and perhaps justify it with a sentence in a footnote. Philosophers, for good reasons, focus far more on the structure of the arguments, and less on the truth of the premises. For the WDR, every subject area we wrote on was backed by an extensive literature review and, to the best of our ability, every significant statement about policy or behavior or measurement was backed by at least one well-designed field study in the development context, and ideally several. The fear was that if we made a policy recommendation that just seemed like a good idea, that could result in significant resources being poured into something altogether untested. For this reason, we had to leave out a number of subjects that were of real importance but lacked sufficient (or sometimes any) data. It was eye-opening to see how many areas in development policy lack the kind of data that would help drive more successful policymaking.

The wonderful thing about working on a project like this is that it is very easy to remain motivated to do good work. If you do good enough research, and think carefully about what to say and how to say it, you can make a real contribution to the well-being of those who most need help. Unlike most academic philosophy papers, there is a large built-in audience for a WDR, and because it comes from the World Bank, that provides an important institutional validator for any ideas and proposals that are contained within. So, this gave me reasons to do as much as I could to improve the document, and to work as effectively as I could with others. Making myself useful to others ensured that I got to have input on what they worked on.

One of the important things that I discovered in this work is that while my path to development policy work started with some expertise in social norms, my philosophical training in general was a major reason that I have been able to keep doing this work. Philosophers are in many ways generalists, at least in terms of the skills we acquire during our training. We are very effective at cutting to the core of an argument, identifying the moving parts, and putting the rest aside. We are good at thinking through counterfactual cases and have experience identifying normative assumptions in what might otherwise look like a descriptive claim. We can express these ideas clearly in our writing and in conversation.

Philosophers often conceive of their skills as they relate to other philosophers, so we often cash out our expertise purely in terms of our areas of specialization or competence. Likewise, I thought that my expertise in social norms was going to be the reason that people wanted to involve me in conversations. And while that subject-matter expertise certainly came in handy, I was able to participate in more conversations because the general philosophical toolkit I had was in itself valuable. When working with an interdisciplinary' group, much of what we bring to the table is our disciplinary background. Almost by definition, those are skills that others on the team will lack. And so it is important to see those disciplinary skills that we take for granted when working with other philosophers as key differentiators for us in more interdisciplinary settings.

One of the most important lessons that I have learned from this work is that philosophers must develop effective ways to translate their concerns or proposals into terms that practically-minded economists, doctors, engineers, and policymakers can actually understand and use. This requires work on our part—it means that we must learn enough about other disciplines, or the details of a given empirical problem, for us to be able to engage with those details of the given problem and do so on terms that others can understand. This is useful for philosophy itself, of course. Philosophy of science increasingly focuses on the actual practices of scientists. Philosophy of language pays attention to linguistics. But these are all efforts to import the concepts from other fields into philosophy. Philosophers can work to export more philosophy into the frameworks of other disciplines. This helps make our relevance and value clearer to others.

It is common in the sciences to work on translational research—taking basic research that may be removed from any given practical problem and then applying it to particular problems, like improving the treatment for some disease. I view my policy work in this way. I take some of the basic research that I and other philosophers have done and work to convert it into policy tools and recommendations. This translational work by itself is not necessarily a major philosophical contribution, but it is a contribution that demonstrates and potentially increases the value of philosophy. Insofar as philosophy has practical impacts, the timelines tend to be long. But in this kind of work, philosophy has immediate impact. For instance, writing a book may introduce some ideas that can slowly circulate in the culture, and eventually have some impact on how people think about an issue. Revamping how a major organization measures social outcomes, or how it thinks about rights protection, can have a large impact right now, as it is immediately institutionalized at scale.

Since my time working on the WDR, the World Bank has taken steps to institutionalize some of the lessons learned. Most prominently, there is now the Mind, Behavior and Development Unit—a group of 16 tasked with working with project teams within the Bank and governments around the world to help diagnose problems and to design and evaluate behaviorally-informed interventions. I have also worked with the World Bank on other projects, most notably an effort to understand the social causes of bride kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic, and have contributed to potential policy interventions to eliminate the practice. Separate from my work with the World Bank, I have worked with colleagues at the University at Buffalo to improve measurement and evaluation tools for sanitation projects, largely focused on toilet use and handwashing. My goal is to make sure that the standard measurement and evaluation tools that development agencies use incorporate questions about norms, and so I have been refining these tools through testing in a number of different countries.

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