Leave the World Bank, get a Nobel

Paul Romer, Creative Commons image by the World Bank

I don’t normally take special note of Nobel Prize recipients, but a hat tip to this year’s Economics winner, Paul Romer. He now joins Joseph Stiglitz and makes us wonder if there is a correlation with being fired from the bank and winning a Nobel in Economics?

You might recall him as the former chief economist at the World Bank who resigned earlier this year after apologizing to Chile for what he termed a “politically motivated” downgrading of the socialist government’s business climate compared to the ranking of the previous conservative administration.

That government was subsequently turned out in elections by the conservative opposition whose candidates used the anti-business tag in the campaign. The Bank’s “Doing Business” report is a celebration of rightist deregulation and regressive taxation that heavily discounts or ignores people who actually work and pay the bills in these nations.

Teachers and other educators have been paying more attention to the World Bank this year especially as it moves to produce the latest iteration of its World Development Report. In draft form, the Bank’s leadership not only doubles down on deregulation, they argue for lower wages in developing countries and promote a gig economy that trashes the protections of formal employment.

That’s the critical context for its dismissive approach to education systems and the role of the teaching profession. On the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including the call of Goal 4, “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all, although the Bank has indicated its support in the past, now the SDGs seem to be ignored or contradicted.

Goal 4 includes equipping young people with skills for life and decent work. Other goals include ending poverty, ensuring prosperity for all, decent work, and leaving nobody behind. By contrast, the Bank’s recommendations for deregulation would weaken important protections and damage those who are already vulnerable and marginalized, for example, women educators.

To be fulfilled, the SDGs require responsibility of governments, rather than abdication to the markets. States should clearly demonstrate political commitment to all the goals, including making quality education free and accessible for all.

Although the Bank recognizes that development is often hindered by the lack of adequate tax revenue, it badly under-estimates the impact of inequality and misses out on the opportunity to suggest a progressive income tax that could provide sustainable funding for government services like education.

As usual, the Bank also seems to continue to underestimate the importance of teaching as a profession, ignoring the voice of educators as expressed through their organizations. This is yet another roadblock for the SDGs as teacher unions and associations are engaged in nearly every advocacy effort on behalf of sustainable development, from health, poverty and hunger to climate change and gender equity.

I say ‘as usual’ because in my experience, there has never been an economic situation, positive or negative, where the World Bank has not called for more sacrifices by workers through deregulation or flexibility or lower wages or weaker unions or bargaining structures. Has there ever been a Bank approach to public services that does not denigrate teacher organizations and the public service values on which they are based? Why should people who have chosen to work to improve the lives of people rather than profit be scorned rather than respected?

Unlike Romer, teachers will likely not be recognized with a Nobel Prize anytime soon, but we will continue to blow the whistle on the World Bank’s continuing efforts to find and fudge the data to fit its political agenda.