Knowledge, Power, Banking
"Knowledge is power" isn't just a slogan tossed around by polo-necked post-modernists. It's a maxim by which international capital lives. Want proof? Later this month, the World Bank will launch a prototype website that demonstrates amply their aim to control the Third world by controlling what is, and is not, officially thinkable.
This has important real-world consequences. This is no ordinary website. More than your average newspaper or magazine, the World Bank's talk matters. As lead lender in most donor consortia in developing countries, the Bank shapes the flow of vast sums of money – not only the Bank's own but also those of Northern taxpayers' aid programmes. The Bank has managed to achieve this pre-eminence by positioning itself as the institution with the most experience, professionalism, and knowledge, in international development. It has achieved this position through a multimillion dollar drive to corner the market in ‘research' in developing countries. Through successive iterations of knowledge production, by bankrolling rafts of consultants on ‘missions' to developing countries , and assisted by the atrophy of national development budgets, the World Bank finds itself primus inter pares in the international capitalist development community. It's a position where its money talks and its talk monies
The World Bank Development Gateway, http://developmentgateway.org is the newest weapon in its arsenal. It is a multimillion dollar web portal that aims, in the words of its draft business plan, to "solve development problems by sharing high-quality information from local and national sources, tailored to users' needs by topic and community". This faintly comic management-speak isn't all hot air. To be fair, some problems *will* be solved by the site. In the world of international development, it is often hard to find out what different aid agencies are up to. The site will contain a database about aid agency projects, which will be useful to those with web access in both developing and developed countries who want to be able to monitor the often controversial activities of these agencies. There'll also be a mini Amazon.com-style bookstore for those unable to order their books through a locally owned store, and news provided by that fund of grassroots development information, the Financial Times.
If this were all the Bank intended to do, the site would be a marginally useful addition to the current rash of development-information portals on the web. It gets worse, though. The centerpiece of the site is an edited section of 140 policy forums, monitored by 'topic guides'. These digital sherpas are tasked with plucking the best morsels of information on the web in their specialist areas, following murkily defined 'quality' criteria, and presenting them to the general public. It is this attempt to provide a strictly policed one-stop shop for ‘knowledge for development' that has caused a great deal of consternation among independent researchers and activists.
problem starts with the assumptions of the project. “'Knowledge for development'
is defined at the very outset as something that the poor lack” notes Lyla Mehta,
a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex. “This not only
legitimises bureaucratic intervention into new areas concerning the lives of the
poor [but t]he standing of poor people's knowledge is diminished and is made out
to be something inferior and not universally applicable.”
A Bit of History
The idea of an institution controlling knowledge in order to legitimize a political agenda and subjugate the poor isn't new. Here's a quote from Bank President James Wolfensohn's speech at the Bank's 1996 Annual meeting. “Knowledge is like light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening the lives of people everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the darkness of poverty – unnecessarily (…) Poor countries –and poor people- differ from rich ones not only because they have less capital but because they have less knowledge.”
“The parallels with the first chapter of St John's Gospel are striking”, says Mehta. This is a particularly appropriate comparison. In its near monopoly control over knowledge, money and governance, the Bank's Gospel in developing countries has its precedent in the Christian Church's work in Early Modern Europe and colonialism. The dispatch of a battalion of consultants from head office isn't called ‘a mission' for nothing. The idea of an ‘information society' isn't as new as its more breathless adherents would like to think; the use of ‘information' to subjugate and control has a long and bloody history.
Tchnology has changed, though, and with the move from pulpit to net, so have the tactics of knowledge management. An unnamed WTO official said, in the wake of the Battle of Seattle, that the confrontation between capitalism and dissent was lost not in the streets or in the conference center, but on the internet. And it was at the Seattle Ministerial that James Wolfensohn, the Bank president, is rumoured to have met Bill Gates, and when the idea of a 'development knowledge portal' was first mooted.
The truth of this doesn't matter much - the parallels between the two are instructive. At the time of writing, Microsoft has been found guilty of monopoly practices. It is a charge that can, with some accuracy, be leveled against the Bank's own behaviour. The market in knowledge on the internet isn't a free one, even if it costs relatively little for certain Northern consumers to access it. Suppliers cannot enter as they wish, and some providers – notably the Bank - have a stranglehold on the market.
Some argue that if the Bank's site is no good, people simply won't use it. Consumers of knowledge on the net aren't however, perfectly informed. The Bank spends a great deal of time and money investing in giving its products the look and feel of impartiality, and it's hard to distinguish the genuinely useful from the morass of verbiage. To muddy this further, top academics are contracted to manufacture knowledge under the Bank's brand. The products of this process are different, however, from the materials that flow from conventional academic journals – only the smallest fraction of the Bank's output is peer reviewed. Despite this major flaw, the Bank's branding has been remarkably successful – it has over the last twenty years become the most widely cited authority on development issues.
Wilks of the Bretton Woods Project argues that this impartiality is
disingenuous. "The World Bank has never been a neutral knowledge broker, it has
always been influenced by narrow economic ideologies and the views of the
powerful governments which run it. Its new site appears to be balanced and
independent, but its structure, editorial approach and governance are again
weighted against those who challenge orthodox views. The Gateway will give the
World Bank and its allies the opportunities to further consolidate their
approaches and may damage the continued growth of a genuinely pluralistic set of
websites on poverty issues."
A Bit of Proof
As with all exercises in thought control, the veneer of objectivity is vital for the Development Gateway. This is promulgated both in its structure and content. Structurally, the gateway will be guided by a Foundation independent of the Bank. This is true. Technically. But consider that very few concrete details have been released about the constitution of the Board of this Foundation. “The only sure way to get on is to chip in 5 million dollars to become a founding member,” says Wilks. “Rumours are that the Board will comprise the Bank, two private sector companies, four or more governments and a couple of civil society representatives, though it remains unclear who, how many, or on what basis these people will ‘represent'”. In any case, when the key structuring and operating decisions have already been taken by the Bank, and when the Bank will have a seat on the board of this body, we may not be unreasonable in thinking that this body will have all the freedom of clockwork.
The Bank also purports to democratize the process of knowledge generation and dissemination through an interactive ranking system. Users are invited to rate just how helpful or useless a particular piece of information is, and these votes are collated online for future users. This is not, sadly, what democracy looks like. It's dot.communitarianism masquerading as universalism.
technology hides a digitally, and hence socially and economically, gated
community in which the voices of those privileged enough to have internet access
are amplified - less than 30% of users of the Bank's existing site come from
outside the United States - while dissenters and the poor are muffled. "In the
end it will just give more prominence to those who are already having no trouble
making their voices heard", says Wilks.
A Bit of Trouble
Even though the site hasn't been launched yet, it is already in trouble. There have, for instance, already been exclusions. Clicking on the feedback section of the site, and looking for Vanessa von Struensee's posts is instructive. Hers is a long correspondence with the editors of one of the sections, in which her attempts to post a report on truth commissions were rebuffed. If this is the response to a professor of law asking for a perfectly reasonable contribution to be posted before the site is officially launched, there are grounds to worry about centralisation and control of knowledge.
The creation of the development gateway hasn't even followed the Bank's standard operations guidelines. In an appeal to the Bank's Fraud and Corruption Investigation Department, two Uruguayan activists have charged the Bank with misuse and gross waste of funds, and “even fraud and misleading public opinion”. They note that no-one but the Bank's highest echelons wants the site – no beneficiaries have asked for it, and in African and Latin American consultations, civil society rejected the gateway, and raised criticisms that have been cosmetically brushed aside. Spending $7 million dollars of money intended to help the poor on a public relations project is rude fraud indeed.
This is why a gamut of scholars, researchers, teachers, politicians and other 'knowledge workers' (I know, I know, it's an unlovely phrase) have pledged to avoid using the gateway, and to support alternative sources of knowledge.
The rejection of the gateway has been compared by some scholars to the 1933 Buecherverbrennung in Nazi Germany in which unacceptable, non-Ayran books were torched. The comparison is unfortunate, and showing why is important. Refusing to confer legitimacy on the Bank's project through non-participation is an act of resistance to totalitarianism, not complicity with it. Susan George, a writer and activist in Europe, was one of the first to sign on to the recent declaration boycotting the World Bank's initiative. Her objection to the Bank's initiative is this: "[i]f you can occupy the mind you don't have to worry about the rest, people will not even be able to ask the right questions much less provide the answers. The systematisation of knowledge according to the criteria of the dominant class is a constant in the history of the struggle for change." If anyone is guilty of anti-intellectualism and close-mindedness, it is the Bank, not the protesters.
The Bank's site is aimed at knowledge workers; as such workers we have far more power than we think we do. Rejecting the site meets the Bank on its own terms, refusing to cooperate with candied enticements to huddle under its Big Tent, Republican-style. There are alternatives out there, and given the limited time and resources available to us, we're better off following a process of 'constructive disengagement', to use a phrase from the Southern African Peoples' Solidarity Network (SAPSN).
This declaration is not, in other words, the cyber-equivalent of book burning. It is a vote of confidence in alternatives. There are already fine portals for ‘development knowledge', if you're looking on the net. ZNet, A-infos, and the Indymedia collective are among the most prominent English language ones. It is our responsibility to use them. At a time when the forces of international capital want to smother thinking about different ways to live, fighting for the space to think about alternatives is a revolutionary act.
more information on the Development Gateway, including the anti-corruption
To sign on to the Declaration, visit http://voiceoftheturtle.org/gateway or send an email to email@example.com with your name and organization in the subject line (though signing the declaration is done in an individual capacity and in no way implied any institutional endorsement).
About the Author
Raj Patel, a former researcher for the World Bank, is a co-editor of The Voice of the Turtle (www.voiceoftheturtle.org). He is based in Zimbabwe, where he is currently completing his research on gender and resistance to economic liberalisation, for a doctorate at Cornell University's Department of Rural Sociology.