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The World Bank Admits No One Reads Its Research

May 15, 2014 in Economics

By Christopher Westley


The World Bank is a secretive multilateral organization that wastes many billions of dollars a year siphoning taxpayer dollars to foreign governments as part of a loan portfolio that emphasizes loan volume over loan profitability. Under normal circumstances, banks that reward volume over profit would not last long, but when the institution is protected from market forces and has access to conscripted capital emanating from member governments’ access to tax dollars, it can last many decades with the grateful support of crony firms that are the actual beneficiaries of its loans. (Seven years ago, I chronicled some of the World Bank’s waste and corruption in this book review of Jeffrey Hooke’s pithy book, The Dinosaur Among Us: The World Bank and its Path to Extinction.)

Among the many individuals working at the Bank include an army of economists producing policy report after policy report, all made available publicly in the form of PDF documents. Two of these economists, Doerte Doemeland and James Trevino, wondered whether anyone actually reads these documents and decided to investigate, with the result being yet one more report, entitled “Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read?”

The answer: Not as many as you think. Studying a dataset of 1,611 policy reports written from 2008 to 2012, Doemeland and Trevino found that 31 percent were downloaded exactly zero times, while another 40 percent had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. While 13 percent of the reports were downloaded 250 times or more, some 87 percent were never cited in the academic literature (based on citation counts in Google Scholar). Twenty five reports, comprising 2 percent of all the reports, were downloaded over 1000 times.

The World Bank’s revelation that the many millions of dollars it devotes to research each year contributes to the occupation of its server space and little else does not exactly compare with the 2003 International Monetary Fund paper that found countries following IMF suggestions often suffer a “collapse in growth rates and significant financial crises.” But it’s close. In the World Bank’s case, maybe the intended recipients of its research have advance knowledge about its actual value. Regardless, both cases illustrate how when funding is assured outside of the market, the social utility of productive activities greatly declines.  Although I’m sure this is true, perhaps the World Bank will write a paper about it, just to be sure.

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