How the World Bank Got Over the Curse of Knowledge

An interview with Aleem Walji, Director of the World Bank’s Innovation Labs.
By: /
July 10, 2014
Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

Over the course of almost two decades working in international development, Canadian Aleem Walji, Director of the World Bank’s Innovation Labs and former Head of Global Development Initiatives at, has focused on increasing transparency and accountability in government, improving the delivery of basic services to the poor and fostering the growth of small and medium-size enterprises in developing countries. OpenCanada Reporter Alia Dharssi sat down with him to talk about how the World Bank promotes innovative solutions to tackling poverty and other development challenges.

Innovation is a buzzword that we hear a lot these days in international development. What does it mean for the World Bank?

Innovation is something new to you with an uncertain outcome and strong potential impact. It’s not invention. I certainly don’t feel like our job at the World Bank is to invent. Our job is to adapt. There’s lots of terribly interesting, innovative stuff going on in many parts of the world that are having a social impact. The World Bank Group takes these innovations and looks at the evidence to figure out what is most likely to grow. Then, we use the “megaphone” that the World Bank represents to help them scale.

Take the example of conditional cash transfers, which began in Brazil. The idea that you can change behaviour, like encouraging parents in the poorest households to keep their kids in school, by using the carrot of cash was innovative. It is not something we had expected to work, but it did lead to behaviour change. Our experts saw the potential and we took it to other countries and analyzed the outcomes with rigorous evaluations, trying again and again. Now it’s a program in more than 20 countries in both Latin America and Africa.

What are the challenges that the World Bank faces when it’s trying to help such innovations grow?

Well, we have an expert-driven culture. We face “the curse of knowledge.” There’s very little people at the World Bank think we don’t know because we have in our ranks some of the leading global experts on water, sanitation, financial inclusion, etcetera. We also have incremental innovation. We gradually get better, bigger, faster, and cheaper, but we don’t have breakthrough innovation. For that, you have to have an appetite for risk.

We’re led by thousands of economists. They want to see data and evidence. I often hear from colleagues, “Oh, we’re all for innovation as long as it has been done before.” But innovation requires you to go into areas where you don’t have proven models. That’s why I think the Bank shouldn’t concentrate on invention. We should have our heads up to see what’s going on all around us. If we can spot the things that are working in the field and use our institutional strengths as a platform for growth, then that’s really the best use of our resources.

It sounds like you’ve had to push the World Bank out of its comfort zone as Director of the Innovation Labs. Could you tell me about the risks that you’ve had to urge the Bank to take in order to promote innovation?

I think the best example is Open Data. In 2009, the Bank suffered from what Hans Rosling dubbed “Database Hugging Disorder.” Essentially, we had lots of data that was created in the public domain and funded by taxpayers, but that we kept under the hood. We would release it selectively in papers, but behind every paper that we published, was a ton of data that was not opened, machine-readable or re-usable. When our little group starting playing with the notion of what would it take to do open data, there was an immediate pushback from our colleagues at the Bank. We publish something called the World Development Indicators (WDI), which was generating roughly $2 million of revenue for us annually at the time. We used to sell it and publish it in books. To the Bank, USD $2 million is a rounding error, but that was a major source of revenue for the group responsible for publishing the data.

We realized over time that the data wasn’t being held back intentionally by the leadership. They had actually thought the information was public. The problem was we had not made the distinction between what’s public and what’s searchable and tagged as usable. Much of our information was in pdf files that you could access if you knew where to look, but most people didn’t know where to look. Also, most people didn’t go to the World Bank homepage to look for data, but to Google or Yahoo or Bing.

Open data was an innovation because it gave people the ability to find our data on globally-used platforms. And, within six to eight weeks of the launch of Open Data in April 2010, we were getting more traffic to than to our homepage. That’s only increased over time as we continue to expand what we make available. We’ve gone from the WDI to all kinds of micro-data to helping Indonesia release subnational poverty indicators. To the credit of that group that initially resisted, they’ve gone on to be the champions of open data in the Bank and in the world.

Is there any sort of class-dimension to who is accessing open data and how they’re using it? Isn’t it more difficult for poor people and illiterate people to use it?

That’s absolutely right. It’s why we work with civil society organizations that are representative of different groups in the population. For example, organizations like Twaweza and Daraja in East Africa are collecting data on water points, helping to interpret it and using it for the needs of the poor. There’s all kinds of examples where it hasn’t gone right, often because projects initially overemphasize the importance of technology. But folks are failing fast and failing forward so that they improve quickly.

Could you tell me more about the risks of overemphasizing technology?       

Well, it’s naïve to assume that if you build a portal with a bunch of data on it, it’ll have revolutionary impact, alleviate poverty, improve education, etcetera. You’ve got to build the capacity of users. We’ve been running boot camps in places like Nepal, Kenya, and Ghana to teach people to use this information and build digital literacy. I often say that Carnegie built libraries before there were readers at scale. Sometimes you have to build those repositories and that infrastructure, but if you don’t build readership, whose going to go to the library?

What are the other challenges you run into when you’re trying to promote innovation on the ground?

The World Bank’s Development Marketplace is a platform that has constantly run into challenges on the ground. Starting in 1998, we set out to find enterprises that help the poor, whether in health, education, water, energy, or sanitation, and gave them grants of USD $100,000 to USD $200,000 to help them grow. We soon realized, however, that many of the social enterprises were trapped after the initial grant. We started to provide technical assistance and to help them raise more finance. We’ve done that for the last several years, but we’ve since realized that even that didn’t always lead to the sort of impact we wanted to have.

We have to look at the broader ecosystem. Take the example of clean urban water. I was just in Jharkhand, where I found a kiosk of Water Life, a social enterprise that provides access to clean water about ten metres from a free—but dirty— government water point. Why would someone buy water when there’s a free water point right in front of it? To do that, the local community would have to understand that the free water leads to, say, diarrhea six days a month and that the cost of not being able to work is much higher than the price of Water Life. That requires awareness-raising, but it’s not affordable for Water Life to spend tens of thousands of dollars educating people and, if it did, it would also help the competition.

Building a better environment for that sector at a broader level is something that the government, working with the World Bank and others, can do. Ecosystem building is an important role for us and others like us.

In the face of all of these challenges, what innovations do you find inspiring?

I feel inspired when I see an organization that’s doing something in a new way or creating a new delivery model to serve the poor. You know, people talk about Operation ASHA, which aims to make TB treatment available to the most disadvantaged patients, because they have a fingerprint recognition mechanism supplied by Microsoft for tracking patients supplied. But when I went to see them in the slums of Delhi, I realized that their work involves all kinds of other innovations unrelated to technology. Their service provider is not a doctor, but a community health worker, which dramatically reduces the cost of treatment. They have non-descript clinics without signs that mention TB to reduce social stigma, which makes it safer, particularly for women, to seek treatment. They’ve also identified ways to increase treatment compliance for a disease that is traditionally difficult to treat because people don’t constantly take their medication for the necessary six to nine months.

These are powerful innovations, but it’s insufficient to simply support Operation ASHA at the level of its own work. We want to use our influence to create an environment in which organizations like Operation ASHA are more likely to grow. How can Operation Asha and others like it, take small but effective innovations, grow them and reach ten times more people? It is not enough to reach 100,000 people when a disease affects ten million. Scale matters but adaptation to local context is critical. That’s the challenge before us and that’s why we must keep at this work with tenacity and purpose.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.