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New Left Review I/217, May-June 1996


Robert Wade

Japan, the World Bank, and the Art of Paradigm Maintenance: The East Asian Miracle in Political Perspective

To what extent is the World Bank an actor, an ‘autonomous variable’ in the international system? [1] In addition to the cited sources, this paper is based on interviews with officials in Tokyo and Washington, dc, who prefer anonymity, and on my own experience as a World Bank economist in 1984–88. I thank Ngaire Woods, Linda Weiss, Ronald Dore, Devesh Kapur, Chalmers Johnson, Thomas Biersteker, Manfred Bienefeld, Wendy Law-Yone and Toru Yanagihara for comments. The paper can be read as a companion to my ‘Selective Industrial Policies in East Asia: Is The East Asian Miracle Right?’, in Albert Fishlow et al., eds, Miracle or Design? Lessons from the East Asian Experience, Washington, dc, 1994. The theoretical ideas behind the critique are set out in my Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization, Princeton 1990. Or to what extent are its objectives and approaches the mere manifestations of competition and compromise among its member states? Several writers have argued that the Bank has a relatively large amount of autonomy—from the state interests of its overseers, and that its staff have some autonomy from the senior management. They have traced this autonomy to variables such as ‘lack of clarity of the priorities of organizational objectives’, ‘the difficulty and complexity of accomplishing the organization’s mandate’, ‘bureaucratized structure’ and ‘professionalism of staff’. [2] Stephen Krasner, ‘Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables’, International Organization, no. 36, Spring 1982; William Ascher, ‘New Development Approaches and the Adaptability of International Agencies: The Case of the World Bank’, International Organization, no. 37, Summer 1983. But there is something strangely bloodless about this approach. It manages to discuss autonomy without conveying anything of the political and economic substance of the field of forces in which the Bank operates. By focusing only on morphological variables like ‘professionalism’ and the ‘complexity of accomplishing the organization’s mandate’, it misses other variables like ‘correspondence of organizational actions with the interests of the us state’. If the Bank is propelled by its budgetary, staffing and incentive structures to act in line with those interests, the us state need not intervene in ways that would provide evidence of ‘lack of autonomy’; yet the Bank’s autonomy is clearly questionable.

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