January 5, 2009—Modern development economics started around the time when experts grappled with problems related to the industrialization of eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Next, economists turned their concerns towards Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The field, which deals with the economic aspects of the development process in low-income countries as well as with ways of promoting economic growth, was hitting its stride by 1978, when the World Bank produced its first World Development Report, or WDR.
A window on development economics
Since that first edition, the annual WDR has provided a window on development economics to a broad international readership. The report has served as one of the principal vehicles for encapsulating the World Bank’s knowledge of and policy recommendations on key global development trends.
From agriculture and the environment to economic growth and international trade, the WDR has offered a unique perspective on the evolution of thinking, policy making, and practice in the field of international development.
Titled “Prospects for Growth and the Alleviation of Poverty,” the first WDR was a slender report that became an overnight success. Over the years, the prestige of the publication grew, and within the international development community, it quickly achieved iconic status. Imitators followed, and the bandwagon launched more than three decades ago is now crowded with reports inspired by the WDR.
A critical look at three decades of WDRs
To commemorate the WDR’s 30th anniversary, the World Bank has published two new retrospective publications: one in print and the other in electronic format.
The first is the volume Development Economics through the Decades: A Critical Look at Thirty Years of the World Development Report. It includes an essay by World Bank Economic Advisor Shahid Yusuf on how the WDR has impacted development thinking.
Over the years, whether the reports were attempting to define the relative roles of the market and the state, or looking at how institutions and services affect economic performance and wellbeing, the WDRs managed to mobilize a vast apparatus of scholarly references and to benefit from a wealth of empirical information.
“It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the Bank through the WDR, the WDI and other reports, has had a large hand in creating an appetite worldwide for empirical data and for indicators starting with the dollar a day measure of poverty, which has become a fixture since the 1990 WDR on poverty,” said Yusuf.
WDRs over the years have struggled to come up with specific, proven policies for reducing poverty and promoting growth. That task is now especially difficult, given the worldwide crisis.
“Sustaining development in a harsher physical environment and a more crowded planet requires a great deal of human ingenuity. Knowledge is going to have to serve as the fulcrum of progress or provide the key to a decent survival. Much will depend upon the contribution of the hard sciences. But I would hope that economics and the other social sciences can also rise to the challenge and do their bit,” Yusuf said.
Looking ahead: Experts have their say
Justin Lin, World Bank Chief Economist
If development economics is part of the solution to global problems, what might be the WDRs’ role? This was pondered at a December 2008 panel discussion at the World Bank. Speakers included Chief Economist Justin Lin, Princeton Economics Professor Angus Deaton, UNDP Executive Director Kemal Derviş, NYT Economics Professor William Easterly, and University of Tokyo Professor Takatoshi Ito.
“Given the seriousness of today’s crisis, we should consider global finance as a possible topic for a future WDR,” said Senior Vice President and Chief Economist Justin Lin. “We should consider the information asymmetry between the public and private sectors, between solvent and insolvent banks and between government regulators and the banking industry.”
Lin went on to stress that industrial capital, comparative advantage and the adaptation of technological innovation are also worthy of future study, since they could help poor countries kick start growth and speed development, even as they struggle through the current downturn.
In his comments, William Easterly challenged the Bank’s approach to growth economics, saying, “The intellectual tragedy of 30 years of WDRs is that they never accepted the reality of the great unpredictability and uncertainty of economic growth in the short to medium run.”
Easterly went on to suggest that development economists should aim for honesty regarding the shortcomings of the regression models they use and they should spend time studying failed efforts at growth as much as they scrutinize over-hyped ‘success stories’.
Digital archive of all WDRs
The Complete World Development Report, 1978-2009
Also being published to mark the anniversary is The Complete World Development Report, 1978-2009, a digital archive of the full collection of WDRs that allows users to explore, search, and view every page of every report as it originally appeared.
The DVD also contains a development database, derived from World Development Indicators 2008, along with a timeline of both international and World Bank events from 1945-2008.
For more information about Development Economics through the Decades: A Critical Look at Thirty Years of the World Development Report or The Complete World Development Report 1978-2009, visit the World Bank’s e-commerce site.
The current and upcoming WDRs are on economic geography (2009 edition) and climate change and development (2010).