Reflection – World Bank Development Report 1998-1999

A decade ago, we imagined technology in the context of development as a duality: challenge and opportunity. The World Bank’s research and rhetoric laid bare the stakes of their development strategy, through which knowledge in its macro-level forms – instrumental and qualitative – could be either directed through technology, or allowed to continue to accrue as an asset for already-well-positioned groups. Their understanding of the relationship between power and governance played a crucial part of this strategy. However, as the implications for policy put forward by the report make clear, this epistemological schema does not inquire after the roots of globalization or the impacts of changing forms of sovereignty.

The report details the global organization of knowledge, as envisioned by the authoritative source on international development. In it, knowledge either takes an instrumental, technical, how-to form, or a more qualitative form, in which it gives information about the attributes of actors. Between the two forms, knowledge comprises an asset like capital, and indeed it functions like capital in that it contributes to distinctions between sickness and health, poverty and wealth, even helping to define those categories of development. As a metric as well as a framework, knowledge is spoken of as both an object to be acted upon – acquired, shared, transferred – and a means through which to affect information. Though it concentrates on knowledge, the report emphasizes our reliance on the techniques of knowledge’s conveyance, and in particular on the technological apparatuses that make possible – or hold us back from – the recognition and use of knowledge in the context of development.

So technology intersects between institutional and ideological schemata for strategies of development. The report shows us that both instrumental and structural techniques of addressing financial, environmental, and social inequalities can hinge on the technologies available to people, governments, and other actors in developing regions. In particular, access to information and communication technologies is framed as both a goal and a requirement for policy and those whom it impacts. Yet in the midst of its detailed discussion of the example of the so-called green revolution, as well as in the overviews and concluding remarks about policy, the report does not acknowledge the intimate connections that technology holds to power and to governance.

Questions of globalization, sovereignty, and history thus remain unasked and unanswered by this report. The omission seems less one of malice or misdirection than one of misrecognition: international institutions are enjoined to create and share global and developmental knowledge with local institutions in developing regions; strategies are outlined to narrow knowledge gaps and to address information problems through increased information and communication, respectively; metrics are proposed and policies suggested to redress obvious structural dilemmas. Meanwhile, the strategies assume that epistemological differences between the developed and the developing worlds are precisely world-forming, thereby stripping away the agency to invent, reform, or challenge policy initiatives from those without the means to produce reports like this one – a bitter irony.

How to distinguish technological and technical apparatuses from the conditions of their production, adoption, and objects becomes the largest question raised by the report’s positions. A contemporary approach to the imagination of technology in the context of development might, then, frame technology not just as a mutual creator and vehicle of knowledge, but also as a categorical element of the political in its own right. Such questions and methodological followings can form the basis for this semester’s inquiries.

(Reference: The World Bank.  1998.  Word Development Report: Knowledge for Development.  Washington, DC: The World Bank.)

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