The world of banking is perhaps not the first to spring to mind when we think of innovation, technology and solving the world’s problems. And at this time, when the threat of bankruptcy is looming over more nations than it’s healthy to think about, the names of the big global financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF have taken on a distinctly funereal sound.
The World Bank has had its share of criticism over the years. Admittedly, anyone with a character anything less than saint-like would find it hard to live with a stated aim as noble as fighting poverty without attracting some kind of stain of hypocrisy. Accusations have ranged from petty corruption to elephantine inefficiency. Think back to Prague in September 2000, when part of the city turned into a battleground between police and protestors trying to shut down a World Bank / IMF summit. The protestors’ complaint was globalisation policies that enable the rich to accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor and of the environment.
However, many of the delegates insisted they shared the protestors’ passion for defending the poor. Vaclav Havel, renowned campaigner for civil liberties and at that time Czech President gave voice to his hope that the summit would enable nations worldwide to reach a level of cooperation never seen before. And the fact stands that, for better or for worse, the World Bank does fund projects which are making life better for many people through non-returnable grants and below-market-rate loans.
Another understandable criticism of World Bank policies has been that they are generated in the main by representatives of the largest donor nations, thus are western-oriented, resulting in development solutions which are “tacked on” to developing countries where they simply don’t work. In 2010, in a partial attempt to address this problem, the voting rights of the World Bank members were revised to give more weight to developing countries.
The distribution of rights will unfortunately remain a balancing act between the often legitimate requirements of net donors and net recipients, and there is still much work to be done. But it does seem that the World Bank is making a strenuous effort to learn and to improve.
This year’s World Bank / IMF Annual Meeting passed in Washington, D.C. with neither a bang nor a whimper. And amazingly enough, among the hard-core discussions on capital flows and global financial stability, the policy wonks were to be found sitting around discussing no less than open development and open data.
On the World Bank’s blog pages you can tune in to video highlights of the discussions at the summit. Among the subjects discussed was how the Bank, until recently seen as a repository of data which is closed to public access, has been opened up to enable citizens to evaluate the level of transparency of the Bank and of their governments. The Bank launched its Open Data Initiative in April 2010, making a host of data sets on development indicators available to the public for the first time.
An idea mooted was that the Bank should focus on what it is good at: generating data, while it should be left to users to come up with the “viewers” for that data that would best suit their purposes – according to their geographical location or any other criteria they judge important.
To that end, World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced a competition “Apps for Development“. Programmers and development practitioners worldwide are being asked to come up with software applications to manipulate Bank data to either raise awareness of, or help achieve at least one of the Millennium Development Goals.
So if you’re working in that area and up to the challenge, it’s time to get developing. A prize of up to $15,000 is yours for the taking!