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“[T]he promoters of micro-credits promise to deliver us from poverty and emancipate women. In fact, it is the opposite that happens: we find ourselves trapped in a spiral of over indebtedness, launching infeasible micro-projects that, instead of keeping our heads above water, push us deeper into poverty, stress, humiliation and violence. We are at the end of our tether!

This is part of a declaration recently issued by women from fourteen countries, gathered in a meeting of African activists in Bamako, Mali, in November. Read the rest of this entry »

The World Bank’s previously public data on microfinance and financial inclusion has recently been locked away behind a paywall. It’s hard to figure out why. However, it raises larger questions about the Bank’s strategies for microfinance and knowledge more broadly.

(This is a background piece to an article published on the IDS blog.)

Since the 1990s, the World Bank has sought to present itself as not only as a lender, but also a global “Knowledge Bank” that collects and provides knowledge as a global public good. It has garnered some praise, and perhaps more criticism, for ostensibly seeking to monopolise knowledge about development. In 2012, the Independent Evaluation Group concluded the objective of creating a global Knowledge Bank had not been achieved, criticising a lack of uptake of knowledge within the Bank and “intellectual silos”.

So how about intellectual vaults, with knowledge securely locked away? Turning public monopolies into private (or pseudo-private) monopolies; now that doesn’t sound like something the World Bank would be in favour of, does it? It’s precisely what happened with the World Bank’s microfinance data platform earlier this month.

The MIX (also known as “Microfinance Information Exchange”, or “”) was created by the World Bank’s in-house-but-arms-length microfinance governing body, CGAP, to improve the transparency of the microfinance industry. Since 2002, the MIX (whose connections to the World Bank are not made very clear, but its headquarters are across the street) has collected data about the global microfinance sector, packaged primarily to cater to investment decision-makers.

The MIX’s “.org” suffix denotes its claim to serve the greater good. The data were made available on-line.  Anyone with an interest in microfinance could access it: “a big win for open data in international development”.

Get the “public” data – for upwards of $486

Those days, it seems, are over. All the data which were previously available for downloading and (usually after some cleaning) analysing in a spreadsheet are now behind a paywall. What used to be a “global public good” is now priced at at least $486 a year – clearly too much for most students or researchers, let alone those from developing countries.


(Image: screenshot from

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Yesterday, the papal encyclical “Laudato Sii” was finally released. Environmentally engaged members of the Roman Catholic Church have awaited this day with cautious excitement since January 2014, when it was first announced that Pope Francis prepares such a document on “the ecology of mankind”. Over the last months, the event has also received remarkable attention in the wider public all over the globe.

The release of the encyclical exemplifies how religious actors can influence regulatory processes. Short-term, it may affect current political events with judgments about concrete political choices, influencing their (il)legitimacy. For instance, the papal encyclical calls the final document of the Conference of the United Nations on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, “ineffective”. Further,

the strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. […] it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors (Laudato Sii).

The release may also create a new momentum of debate and hope in the year of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties (CMP11) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in Paris during which parties aim for a new, legally binding agreement.

Long-term, it is a significant theological document meant to give direction to contemporary Catholicism and 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. Even if we cannot know how it will be interpreted in thirty years from now, its effect is likely to last longer than the next international climate agreement. But despite or especially because of its character, it enfolds its dynamic only with its reception by an audience willing and eager to engage with it. At least three factors have helped to turn the publication of the encyclical into a widely received event which is likely to deserve all the hope that is attached to it.

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eutopia-logoAbout two years ago I blogged about zombie provisions of the failed ACTA treaty, which resurfaced in other treaties such the the“Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement” (CETA). In the new multingual Eutopia magazine I have now published an article on the currently debated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP):

The dispute over the planned TTIP transatlantic free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States goes far beyond the treaty itself, the reason being the tradition in which TTIP is grounded.

It is merely the most recent acronym in a constantly expanding family of abbreviations, its best known members including GATT, TRIPS, GATS, MAI, ACTA, CETA and TPP*.


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In the series “algorithm regulation”, we discuss the implications of the growing importance of technological algorithms as a means of regulation in the digital realm. 

Facebooks Edge Rank Algorithm (Source:

Facebooks Edge Rank Algorithm (Source:

In a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), Adam Kramer and others published an article on “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” with data derived from the world’s largest social network Facebook. The researchers was given the permission to manipulate the Facebook newsfeed in order to test how differences in terms of emotional direction of postings, i.e. more “happier” or more “sadder” updates, impact on people’s status updates. The study delivered two main results: First, emotions are “contagious” in that more happy postings inspired more happy postings and vice versa. Second, fewer emotional posts (in either direction) reduces posting frequency of Facebook users.

The publication of these results has incited furious debates with regard to research ethics, mainly criticizing that Facebook should have asked users to (more) explicitely consent in taking part in such an experiment. Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who edited the study for publication, is quoted in an Atlantic article subtitled “It was probably legal. But was it ethical?” as follows:

“I was concerned,” Fiske told The Atlantic, “until I queried the authors and they said their local institutional review board had approved it—and apparently on the grounds that Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.”

Over at orgtheoryElizabeth Popp Berman agrees that “the whole idea is creepy” but also argues that Read the rest of this entry »

How did tobacco and smoking become a global health policy issue? This article – the third in our series (1, 2) on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – examines the critical juncture at which new information, new information technology and an emergent transnational activism combined to produce a new agenda for reducing the impact of NCDs.

Corinthian steamers

Health hazards of smoking in 1824: the flaming moustache

(Detail from “Corinthian Steamers”. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Once upon the time, the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry appeared legally impregnable, and held enough sway to turn United Nations (UN) organisations against the World Health Organisation (WHO) to neutralise global tobacco control efforts.

A 1999 World Bank report estimated that four million people died annually from tobacco-related illnesses and predicted the number to rise to ten million by 2030, with 70% of these deaths occurring in “developing” countries. According to Taylor and Bettcher, 800 million of the 1.25 billion smokers worldwide lived in developing countries in 2000.

However, within the emerging global health community, a transnational anti-tobacco movement was gaining momentum by the late 1990s. One major shift in approach by the WHO was the development of a new anti-smoking initiative within its new commitment to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs increasingly became a legitimate area of WHO involvement, which was concerned about tobacco as the second leading NCD risk factor, causing 9% of mortality worldwide.

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Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman wears Monsanto cap: irony or admiration?
Photo by Dan Charles, NPR

The man in the picture above is a self-proclaimed fan of Monsanto Company’s genetically engineered soybeans. In fact, every year until 2007 Vernon Hugh Bowman – a 75-year-old farmer from Indiana – purchased Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready soy seeds (RR) from a licensed retailer in order to plant his crop of soy. RR is a type of genetically modified seed that has in-plant resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides. This means RR soy crops can be sprayed with Roundup weed-killers without any damage being done to the soy.

But despite his loyalty and admiration, in 2007 Bowman was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement, and the farmer has taken on a legal dispute that recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The case revolves around whether Monsanto’s patent over RR soybeans grants it control over the reproduction of second-generation seeds. But from a broader perspective it raises the question of what institutional framework is most desirable for regulating the scope of patent rights and points to the tension between protecting competitive markets and promoting innovation through patents. Moreover, it brings to the public sphere discussions concerning transformations of the farming sector resulting from the privatization of its basic input – seeds. Read the rest of this entry »

In the series “algorithm regulation”, we discuss the implications of the growing importance of technological algorithms as a means of regulation in the digital realm. 

fair-search-europe-logoA common complaint of Google’s competitors in fields such as Internet maps is that Google’s search algorithm favors its own services over those of competitors in its search results. For instance, the FairSearch coalition led by Microsoft, Oracle and others calls for more transparency in displaying search results and harshly criticizes Google:

Based on growing evidence that Google is abusing its search monopoly to thwart competition, we believe policymakers must act now to protect competition, transparency and innovation in online search.

Given Google’s market dominance in Europe with over 90 percent in core markets such as Germany, such allegedly discriminatory practices led to an antitrust investigation by the European Commission (EC). However, providing reproducable evidence for such discriminatory search results is difficult. Google is not only constantly changing its search algorithm (see “Algorithm Regulation #4: Algorithm as a Practice“) but also increasingly personalizing search results; both these characteristics of contemporary search algorithms make it difficult to compare search results over time.

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Last week, I attended a very interesting conference organized by Jean-Christophe Graz, Christoph Hauert, Marc Audetat and Danielle Büschi at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. At this conference, the prospects and limits of participation of civil society in international standardization were not only assessed by leading academics working in the field but also by members of various NGOs, including consumer and environmental organizations operating at the national and transnational level. The conference was part of a research programme at the University of Lausanne called “Living together under uncertainty” which has the aim to reinforce the relationship between academic knowledge and civil society. The INTERNORM project is trully transdisciplinary in the sense that Helga Nowotny understands the term: bringing together different types of knowledge from academics and practitioners for democratic problem-solving in the global sphere. The conference was one of the rare moments where academics and pratictioners engaged in really productive intellectual inquiry into how problems of standard-setting are framed, organized and managed in various national and transnational arenas. It also turned out to be a very cross-fertilizing event between the French and English-speaking communities in this field. Discussions revealed the many still persisting obstacles created by technical standard-setting organizations which make it difficult for civil society actors to participate on an equal footing. Yet, discussions also pointed to the strategic capacity of transnational and European NGOs to coordinate effectively across borders and to set their priorities in ways to enhance their leverage and influence. The presentations of the conferences are available on the INTERNORM project website.


Just recently the renowned Göttinger Institute for Democratic Research has published a remarkable study on the motives of protest movements in Germany (“The new power of citizens”). While the book reveals interesting insights about who protests and why in 2012, it itself triggered public criticism – not for its content, but for who financed the study – the international petrol company BP. This triggered a larger debate about the role of transnational companies as financiers of research particularly into activism, which is occasionally also directed against such companies. Are research results used by companies to democratize economic projects or rather to further the economization of democratic concerns of citizens?

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
March 2018
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