Social Development in the World Bank


May 3, 2022

“To give you an idea of how it felt then while trying to bring anthropology’s message to a rather agnostic and sceptical professional group, I recall a story from the Vatican. After Vatican II, Pope Paul decided to do something about spreading the faith in Eastern Bloc countries. He created a new office in the Vatican, called the Secretariat for non-Believers. He appointed Cardinal Franz Konig of Austria as Secretary to the Non-Believers. Konig went to the Pope and asked, “What Shall I do?”  The Pope, reportedly, shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”  Then he added, “Usus Docebit,” with God’s help, the use will teach you.

  From Social Development in the World Bank

 Maritta Koch-Weser and I recently edited a book devoted to Michael Cernea, the World Bank’s first professional and to this day most influential sociologist. Available as an open source (i.e. free) download (, the book assembles 20 essays by Michael’s World Bank superiors, colleagues, and successors that portray one of the most colourful and influential figures to enter the halls of 1818 H Street.

Michael’s first boss, Leif Christofferson, opens the book by describing Robert McNamara and team’s cloak and dagger machinations to spring Michael from Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania. Having spent a share of his formative years wearing a yellow star in a Nazi concentration camp, Michael had become one of Romania’s best known social scientists through his work studying Romanian villages. However, his growing reputation in European academic circles was not matched by government recognition. Stymied by both Romania’s institutionalized anti-Semitism and communist party rigidity, Cernea responded avidly when McNamara decided that the Bank’s new focus on poverty needed some sociological leavening in addition to a big push on economics.

He may have gotten more than he bargained for.  Michael was tremendously loyal to the Bank, but he was also acutely aware that big organizations carry many contradictions within them, and the Bank’s admirable objectives as a development agency were often undermined by an intellectual framework that didn’t have much space for the various ways that poor people’s voices can be heard. Michael is today most remembered as the leader of the Bank’s social safeguard reforms, but his advocacy for social analysis, active participation, and for including social organization in operational designs are just the obverse side of the same coin. Voice matters, and there are professional ways to bring voice into development designs.

Michael’s background made him uniquely qualified to be McNamara’s envoy to the non-believers. He was forceful in his advocacy for McNamara’s and later James Wolfensohn’s vision, but  his experiences in Romania had also already made him familiar with the language of planning and fluent in navigating the complexities of institutional power.  Michael argued that for McNamara’s transformation of the Bank’s mission to succeed, Bank programs must rest on a deep understanding of how people and governments were organized and interacted – what today we would call governance.  And whereas much development thinking called for big picture policy reform, Michael harped on the fact that the bureaucracies that must carry it out are themselves organizations with structures, incentives, and  political motivations of their own. Development projects are constantly being negotiated, not unrolled.  Voice; governance; agency: finding new ways to work with these are still some of development’s most fundamental challenges.

The various essays in Social Development in the World Bank chart the many ways that new sociological thinking enriches and deepens the Bank’s engagement with the poor.  But that engagement did not come easily. The various Bank practitioners (including essays by Maritta and me) give some pretty raw examples of how much pushback social development got.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution of the book as a whole is as a record of organizational strategy. Social development did not enter the Bank from the bottom. It began with President McNamara and was propelled by pushes from the Board and the growing global environment movement. It was Michael’s genius to find the allies and build the networks to spread social development throughout the Bank.  And beyond: the book concludes with essays by Chinese and Indian scholars on Cernea and the Bank’s impact on their national social impact policies and practice.

When Maritta and I began editing this volume, we thought of it as an act of loyalty to someone who had been our mentor, but whose writings would be mementos from a past that no longer exists.  But we found the opposite. We live today in a time when trust in institutions is at an all-time low; when issues of inclusion, polarization, and conflict are rife; when poor people are demanding that their voice be heard by policy makers. Social development still doesn’t have anywhere near enough of the right solutions, but for development agencies, it is still asking many of the right questions.

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