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Less than meets the eye

Since its debut two years ago, the annual World Development Report from the World Bank has established itself as the most widely respected single source of information on progress against poverty. Rumoured to have cost about $1 million, this year's Report was compiled by a Bank team under Paul Isenman and written by Rupert Pennant­Rea (on loan from The Economist). The result is 100 pages of clear fact and eloquent advocacy, backed by 50 pages of statistical tables, covering finance, trade, aid, energy, education, health, food and population.

But behind the solemnly objective tone of the Report lies a particular view of what development means and how it might be brought about. Drawing out the ideas first elucidated by the World Bank/ Institute of Development Studies publication Redistribution with Growth and the ILO's `World Employment Conference' in 1976, the Bank Report openly embraces the idea that development means meeting the basic needs of the world's poorest billion people; and that redistribution of resources both within and between nations is the principle aim by which this might be achieved. The Report acknowledges that redistribution of resources, including increased priority for primary health care and primary education, is likely to enhance rather than detract from the process of economic growth. This in turn can make such services more widely available.

Ten years ago such heretical notions would not have got past the front door of the World Bank's Headquarters in Washington D.C. Indeed the new Report is regarded by many as the culmination of a revolution in the thinking of the world's largest development lending institution (the Bank is now in the process of increasing its capital subscription from $40 billion to $80 billion).

Privately, members of Paul Isenman's 1980 team will admit that the Report represents a `minority view' and had to be fought through the more conservative echelons of the Bank's hierarchy. Alternatively, there is the suspicion that the progressives have been allowed to have their say, on the grounds that their liberal stance is good for the Bank's somewhat tarnished image, whilst those who control the Bank's funds carry on with `business as usual'.

The answer to the question of whether the latest Report represents soulsearching or window-dressing on the part of the Bank is not to be found in the pages of the Report itself but in the spaces between what the Report says and what the Bank does. And at times that space is so wide that the two lose sight of each other. In education, for example, the Report argues for a shift in emphasis - and spending - from university and secondary education to primary schools for all 6-11 year olds. Not only would this `enrich lives', but it would also help the `equity factor' because the children of the rich tend to get higher education whereas the children of the poor don't. Documenting the close correlation between the level of elementary schooling and the falls in infant mortality rates and the gains in agricultural production, the Report concludes that primary education is probably the best economic investment that a developing country can make - yielding returns of up to 20 per cent.

Altogether, the section on education makes a concise and convincing case for diverting the lion's share of educational budgets to providing universal primary education. Yet the World Bank's own spending on education tells a different story.

Of all the money which the Bank lends for educational purposes, only 10 per cent goes to primary education - which, in absolute terms, is less than the amount given by UNICEF whose resources are miniscule compared to those of its cousin in Washington.

Similarly on the food front, the Report bemoans the plight of the landless, argues that small farms are usually more efficient than large enterprises, warns about the growth of export crops from countries where malnutrition abounds and concludes that there is ,considerable scope for land reform'. Meanwhile, three quarters of the Bank's agricultural credit ($5.3 billion in rural development loans between 1974 and 1978) goes to medium and large land owners. In Latin America, for example, the majority of Bank lending goes to the seven per cent of land owners who hold approximately 90 per cent of the continent's arable land. And despite the Report's emphasis on growing more food within developing countries as a pre-condition of ending hunger, the Bank loaned $258.5 million for non-food crops - such as tea, tobacco, jute and rubber - in 1978 plus an additional $221 million for food crops such as vegetables, sugar and cashew nuts which are grown for export.

There is much to admire in the 1980 World Development Report. It provides useful facts and arguments to support all those who wish to see the emphasis shifted away from economic growth per se and towards the kind of growth which meets the needs of people. It may even serve to influence policy within the World Bank itself. But unless the Bank puts its money where its pen is, it must expect an increasing note of cynicism to greet an annual document which, as a reflection of Bank philosophy, adds up to rather less than meets the eye.