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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 “Mixmarket.org”) 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 themix.org)
Today is World Water Day; this year operating under the heading “Clean Water for a Healthy World”. Every year since 1995, March 22 has been dedicated to “focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources“.
The 2010 events campaign focuses specifically on raising awareness of the importance of water quality for health and human well-being, and the importance of sound water management for preventing pollution.
While that means that this year the World Water Day has no specific focus on the developing world, a global view onto water problems always naturally draws attention to the specific the problems of the developing world, where not only most of the people lacking access to safe drinking water live, where desertification and pollution are worst, and where water-borne diseases are most prevalent – just to give a few examples – but also the technical and financial means for dealing with the causes and consequences of the “water crisis” /1/ are slimmest.
In 2003, the United Nations Economic and Social Council codified a Human Right to Water in its General Comment No. 15, based on the interpretation of the pre-existing International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stated:
The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, to reduce the risk of water-related disease and to provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements.
Yet, this right remains unclaimable in many poor countries, both as a result of the failure of the international community to support the necessary steps financially, and because of a competing paradigm of “full cost recovery”. This is reason enough to have a cursory look today at the transnational governance and provision systems of water and sanitation for the poor.
According to the press release of the Nobel Foundation, Elinor Ostrom was awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel aka Nobel Prize in Economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.
Both, economic governance and commons are recurrent themes in this blog. And while most of Ostrom’s works deal with traditional commons such as forests or fisheries, Creative Commons’ Vice President Mike Linksvayer was eager to point to an article on knowledge commons she co-authored with Charlotte Hess titled “Ideas, Artifacts, and Facilities: Information as a Common-Pool Resource”.
Nevertheless, I fear that applying Ostrom’s insights for transnational governance of transnational commons is far from trivial. This is emphasized in the very article mentioned above for the example of scholarly information:
“But analyzing the whole ecosystem of scholarly information is much more tenuous than in Governing the Commons, where (1) the boundaries were clear, (2) the resource systems studied were small and easy to observe, (3) solving problems was of high salience to appropriators, (4) institutions were long-enduring and had evolved over time, and (5) extensive field observation was available.
Information, on the other hand, often has complex tangible and intangible attributes: fuzzy boundaries, a diverse community of users on local, regional, national, and international levels, and multiple layers of rule-making institutions.” (p. 132)
And as Sean Safford at orgtheory states, Ostrom’s main conclusion for governing traditional commons is “that coordination happens through self-organization and local (very local) governance”.
Consequently, Ostrom herself makes a difference between local and global commons. Together with others, she lists the following “challenges to establish global institutions to manage biodiversity, climate change, and other ecosystem services” in a Science-article titled “Revisiting the Commons” (2007, p. 282 f.):
- Scaling-up problem. Large numbers of participants lead to greater “difficulty of organizing, agreeing on rules, and enforcing rules.”
- Cultural diversity challenge. While diversity can be an asset, Ostrom et al. fear that it also “can decrease the likelihood of finding shared interests and understandings.”
- Complications of interlinked common-pool-resources. Global issues have more interactions and, with increased specialization, become more interdependent, which also increases the difficulty of governance.
- Accelerating rates of change, which make, due to Ostrom et al., “’Learning by doing’ […] increasingly difficult, as past lessons are less and less applicable to current problems.”
- Requirement of unanimous agreement as a collective-choice rule for global resource management.
- We have only one globe with which to experiment, which leaves “less leeway less leeway for mistakes at the local level, while at the global level there is no place to move.”
To sum it up, as far as transnational governance of common pool resources are concerned, Elinor Ostrom’s work predominantly helps in identifying difficulties. For finding solutions, however, these works – according to herself and her colleagues – at best “provide starting points for addressing future challenges.” (p. 282)