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Research Highlights 2010: A Note from the Director

Martin Ravallion 2010
Martin Ravallion
While there is a great deal of new development thinking and experience in the development community outside the World Bank, the Bank’s research department—the Development Research Group (DECRG) in the Development Economics Senior Vice Presidency—has a special role within that community, as well as in the Bank.

DECRG is one of the most productive development economics research groups in the world. Even by purely academic criteria (based on research publications and their citations by other researchers) we are one of the top institutions working on development economics globally and, by some criteria, the leading institution (based on Research Papers in Economics (RePEc) rankings.[1] The Bank is a major generator of new knowledge about development problems and solutions, and its research department is rightly at the center of that knowledge generation.

DECRG also has a unique role through its various partnerships. The experiences of working closely with colleagues in the Bank’s operations and networks, and partners in government and civil society, help the Bank’s researchers identify key gaps in knowledge, generate an awareness of emerging issues “on the ground,” and provide the testing grounds for new ideas and tools. This influences, and is influenced by, the research that is done in the development community as a whole—research that is increasingly being done within developing countries.

DECRG’s research involves collaborations in over 70 developing countries, in addition to cross-country comparative work often spanning many more countries. The continual collaboration with researchers in other parts of the Bank, and with many colleagues in universities and research institutions throughout the world, helps identify important unanswered questions. And it helps expand the envelope of our capabilities in addressing those questions.

Research Highlights is DECRG’s annual report

ARH 2010 cover web

 Full Report 

The department’s research outputs include academic-style books and research papers that must pass external, and typically anonymous, peer review—a process that helps assure that the department’s research meets industry standards for research quality. An online version provides a complete list of DECRG’s publications in 2010; the full report is available at http://econ.worldbank.org/research/highlights2010.

In the following pages you will find a concise summary of the main themes of the department’s work, and selected examples of key research findings over the previous year. In last year’s “Note from the Director” I highlighted our research on the global financial crisis. This has been a continuing theme across a number of the teams, as exemplified by some of the chosen “highlights” in these pages. This year I would like to focus on a relatively new strand of our research outputs, related to tool development.

Focus on tool development

The conventional “retailing model” for research, including at the World Bank, entails that researchers investigate a specific issue over a period and produce a research product—a paper or volume—on their findings. This is then disseminated to the public, other researchers, and policy makers. The Bank is a world leader in producing such retail products on a wide range of development issues.[2]

Many things have changed since this model first emerged. While the Bank remains a leading institution in research on development economics, it is only one institution in the global context, and the vast majority of researchers working on development economics are not affiliated with the Bank. In addition, new development thinking and experience in the wider academic and development community is increasingly found in developing countries themselves, although there can still be long lags between the introduction of new theories and methods (on the one hand) and their application to real-world problems (on the other).

The public is also more demanding of openness and transparency from institutions such as the World Bank. And changes in our information technology have made that openness feasible. It is time then to think more seriously about a supplementary “wholesaling model,” in which the emphasis switches to producing the tools for others to do the research themselves and providing open access to those tools.

There are three objectives for this initiative. This first is to empower researchers in developing countries to do better research for informing development policy and development practice. Success in this endeavor will also help in a second, longer-term, goal of greatly expanding opportunities for a “collaborative retailing model” in which Bank staff can work more closely with colleagues in developing countries as full peers, to the benefit of both. The third goal is to help assure a more open and transparent policy analysis.

How can these goals be achieved? An effective wholesaling model for research will combine open access to data with open access to the analytic tools used to draw policy implications from those data. The subjects of development policy will become more engaged in the research and be less divorced from the analysis that underpins those policies. The science of policy analysis (naturally dominated by economics) is increasingly sophisticated in its theories and methods. An institution such as the World Bank can play an important role in reducing the costs of understanding even the most sophisticated policy analysis.

An example can be found in the research department’s new product, ADePT.[3] This is an innovative software program designed to simplify and speed-up the production of standardized tables and graphs in many areas of economic analysis, focusing particularly on the Bank’s analytic work at country and regional levels. ADePT extracts indicators from micro-level surveys and presents them in a print-ready form. The analytical reports that used to take months to produce can now be automatically generated in minutes. ADePT is a free, stand-alone program, available for download to anyone in the world.

ADePT currently includes modules on poverty, labor, health, education, inequality, social protection, and gender. We are currently working on modules on nutrition, targeting, and micro-simulations. The ADePT interface is now translated into several languages. A series of books that explain the practical applications of each module is in production. We are also developing training courses based on ADePT. Several thousand users in the Bank and around the world use ADePT for their work and the user base is growing fast, plus there is much demand for new ADePT modules and extensions to existing modules.

Another example of how technology can help create a more open research environment, in which users of the Bank’s research can replicate its findings, is found in the high-profile global poverty monitoring work done by the research department. This has been a long-standing research project, aiming to produce the most credible data on the Bank’s progress in attaining its over-arching objective of poverty reduction.[4

Until a few years ago, the great many people who use the Bank’s “$1 a day” poverty counts could not replicate the calculations, or try different assumptions, such as about purchasing power parity rates or poverty lines. "PovcalNet" was devised by the research department to address this problem.[5] It is an online analytical tool for global poverty and inequality analysis. Users can replicate the World Bank’s global poverty measures from the primary data drawn from 700 household surveys and choose their own poverty line, purchasing power parity exchange rates and aggregation group. PovcalNet is now widely used for research and it is also used an important educational tool for students of development economics. PovcalNet is now a major source for many secondary tabulations of poverty and inequality data, including the World Development Indicators.

There are a number of differences between the production process for such analytic, data-based, tools and that of the more familiar products of the retailing model for research. Tool development is typically a longer-term effort, for which continuity is key to success. The work invariably involves teams, rather than individuals. Software development also requires a sufficiently large user base, which takes time to develop. It requires constant effort to support, improve and update—without which the software tolls will die and the data will lose relevance. It also requires support in dissemination, marketing, training and (crucially) user support.

There are important complementarities between the wholesaling model and DECRG’s more traditional business lines. Useful tools for research can best be developed by researchers in the practice of solving real-world problems and writing papers on the results. That is how most innovations in methodology have happened. It is also essential for quality assurance, since the retailed research products must pass critical peer review. And close connectivity between retailing and wholesaling functions helps ensure that the tools conform to best practices based on the relevant technical literatures. Wholesale research tools of wide relevance are most likely to be produced and maintained by researchers who are actively engaged in analysis that utilizes these data.

The Bank’s researchers will continue to play a crucial role in developing the ideas and methods that are needed for better development policy making. The retailing model will remain central to the efforts of the Bank’s research department going forward. However, we need to explore new ways of wholesaling our ideas and methods appropriate to the changing world we work in, and in so doing to also expand opportunities for fuller partnerships with counterparts in the developing world.

There is also a complementarity with DECRG’s data products. Tools such as ADePT and PovcalNet take the data as given, although they can help expose problems in those data. We are also working on improving our data products. The research department’s long-standing “Living Standards Measurement Study” (LSMS) is explicitly built on the principles that research economists are in the best position to design useful household surveys—useful in informing the policy issues that economists need to advise on in developing countries—and that the datasets produced should be public access.[6] The last two years have seen much new activity by our LSMS team under the LSMS-ISA (ISA stands for “Integrated Surveys on Africa”) project.[7] With support from the Gates Foundation, LSMS-ISA is producing new panel datasets for a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa—datasets that will throw important new light on understanding differences in farm productivity and the links to poverty and food security.

I very much hope that you enjoy reading this edition of Research Highlights. Please tell me what you think about the issues raised in these pages, and bring up topics you think need more research. In the end, it is the active interaction with development thinkers and practitioners that will continue to assure that DECRG’s research remains relevant to our shared goal of achieving inclusive and sustainable economic development.

Martin Ravallion
March 2011

Notes

1.     RePEc (Research Papers in Economics) is a collaborative effort of volunteers in 73 countries toenhance the dissemination of research in economics. The heart of the project is a decentralized database of working papers, journal articles, and software components. Top rankings for papers on development http://ideas.repec.org/top/top.dev.html includes 2,227 authors affiliated with 1,930 institutions.

2.     See “The World Bank’s Publication Record,” by Martin Ravallion and Adam Wagstaff, Policy Research Working Paper 5374, World Bank, Washington DC, 2010.

3.    ADePT software available at http://www.worldbank.org/adept.

4.    The latest update can be found in Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, “The Developing World is Poorer than we Thought, but no Less Successful in the Fight Against Poverty,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 125(4): 1577–162, 2010.

5.     PovcalNet software available at http://econ.worldbank.org/povcalnet.

6.     Living Standards Measurement Study available at http://www.worldbank.org/lsms.

7.     Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Surveys on Africa http://www.worldbank.org/lsms-isa.




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