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The Financial Express

Genesis of social development in the World Bank: The inside story


Genesis of social development in the World Bank: The inside story

The history of social development in the World Bank, which came rather late in early 1970s, is the theme of a new book titled Social Development in the World Bank: Essays in Honor of Michael M. Cernea (Springer, 2021). The book, edited by Maritta Koch-Weser and Scott Guggenheim - both veterans of the World Bank, provides glimpses into the inside stories of building a social development agenda in the Bank under the leadership of Michael Cernea, a pioneering social development theorist and activist, where he made a name for himself through very hard work, prolific writing, and theory and policy development. 

The Bank, in its early years (1945-1970), took a very narrow and restricted view of development, largely driven by economists and engineers, promoting the gross domestic product (GDP) model expressed in per capita income disregarding the social dimensions and impacts of development.  Faced with increasing criticisms both inside and outside the Bank for lack of due attention to the social cost of infrastructure development such as displacement and project-induced poverty, the Bank slowly opened its 'door' to social development under Robert McNamara as the President (1968-1981). There was evidently a long wait within the Bank for any social and human development policy agenda and how economic growth and development benefits could have been better shared.

McNamara made a forceful declaration in early 1970s that the overarching goal of the Bank was to end poverty and asked for disciplinary 'skills mix' in Bank staffing to understand how social processes and organisations affect economic outcomes. Michael Cernea, the Romanian rural sociologist, was hired in 1974 as the first in-house sociologist in the Bank, to help develop social methodologies to expand and increase benefits of development. Cernea's work over the following decades proved critically important to Bank's operations in addressing development-induced displacement and resettlement and poverty reduction efforts. As a result, the Bank later raised a large community of anthropologists and sociologists in its cadre to enhance social and cultural perspectives in development projects globally.

The book honours Cernea's contributions to development theory and action-oriented research and policies. It is available in several formats - in hard copy, as an eBook, and also through 'open access' and in a special e-book soft-cover edition. It is a must read for development specialists, particularly those interested in the history of social development, and related social science disciplines. It provides a unique foray into the stories on how a paradigm shift took place inside the Bank's operations, making firm steps steering the Bank in the social development journey. The idea for this edited Festschrift was conceived at the Bieberstein Meeting in Germany in 2011 by a group of friends and colleagues of Michael Cernea, the mentor and decades-long 'thought leader' on social development at the Bank.

Comprised of essays and personal reflections written by Bank's senior staff, including former President James Wolfensohn, scholars/development leaders and close associates of Michael Cernea, the book is of historical significance and a classic in the field. The contributions provide an insider's perspective, and how social scientists have contributed to changing the development paradigm of the Bank from an almost exclusive focus on economic growth to an equally serious consideration of social development, poverty reduction, and protection of cultural/indigenous heritage and rights. It presents fascinating stories and encounters from within faced by the first generation of social scientists led by Michael Cernea and how Cernea turned the initial general 'curiosity'  about social development into social risk analysis in project design and development, and then turned their social knowledge and policies into the realm of the Bank's development practices. Cernea authored some of the first social development policies at the World Bank. Among these, he formulated the first ever Involuntary Resettlement Policy to address adverse impacts of development, which was subsequently also adopted by all multilateral development banks and other development agencies.

The book has 20 chapters in four parts. Several of the contributors describe the backdrop of the rise of a 'top-down' pressure to open the door to social analysis, the incredible story related to hiring of Michael Cernea, the initial reactions and institutionalisation of environmental and social development policies within the Bank, and finally, how the Bank's policies later influenced adoption of social analysis and involuntary resettlement policy by other development banks. The rest of the chapters highlight the increasing use of development anthropology and sociology as applied social science disciplines,  including personal and candid account on resettlement-related challenges encountered by field-level development practitioners in the application of the World Bank safeguards/resettlement and indigenous policies and guidelines. Cernea's widely used involuntary risk and reconstruction (IRR) model is reprinted as a chapter. Finally, case studies on the Narmada Dam and its debacle and the positive impacts of long-term collaborations between the Bank and the Chinese government in the improvement of China's resettlement law and framework are discussed, followed by retrospective on Michael Cernea and his contributions.

Collectively, the book represents 'institutional ethnography' of the Bank at its best, often highlighting internal tensions and schisms associated with historical transitions in the world's largest and leading development finance institution. The book thus is at the cusp of social development history and applied/development anthropology, further reinforcing that development should be understood both as a historical as well as socio-cultural processes. The discourses truly demonstrate that 'people matter' in the development process. Cernea's work and legacy will thus continue to influence further development in resettlement and social development practices. Indeed, his work and scholarly contribution has given birth to an entirely new discipline called 'resettlement studies' in the development field. The book is a must read for development practitioners, who not only want to make a difference but care for fundamental issues of ethics, rights and responsibilities.


Mohammad Zaman, PhD is an international development/resettlement specialist and advisory professor, National Research Centre for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China.

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