Producing the global knowledge economy: the World Bank and the KAM

What it means to either talk about, or indeed ‘produce’, a knowledge-based economy (KBE) is a bit like nailing jelly to the wall; it is dam slippery stuff! Part of the problem, of course, is that like all powerful metaphors, the KBE has a lot of political work to do, and it is powerful precisely because it can do that political work. It has something in it for everyone, whatever one’s politics.

Over 2008, GlobalHigherEd will run a series of analytical pieces making sense of the various players, projects and politics who seem to be involved in the production of a knowledge-based economy–from programs being developed by the World Bank, OECD and World Economic Forum, to knowledge spaces that include knowledge incubators such as Futurelab, local art spaces and cyberspace. Contributions to this theme from fellow bloggers out there, as always, are more than welcome.

We begin this series with the World Bank who, since 1998, have been busy undergoing a major ‘makeover’ – re-representing itself not as a ‘development bank’ but a ‘knowledge bank’. This move, under the leadership of Bank President James Wolfensohn, took seriously the idea that how we managed knowledge was important, and that knowledge was a key factor in technological creation, adoption and communication.

One outcome of the Bank’s move was the Knowledge For Development (or K4D) Program aimed at helping developing countries capitalize on the ‘knowledge revolution’. Specifically, developing (and also developed) countries are challenged to plan appropriate investments in human capital, effective institutions, relevant technologies, and innovative and competitive enterprises.

These challenges are then translated into the four pillars of a knowledge-based economy comprising:

  • an ‘economic and institutional regime’ which values efficiency and entrepreneurship
  • an ‘educated’ population
  • an efficient ‘innovation’ system
  • an ‘information and communication technology’ infrastructure

The four pillars feed into the Bank’s Knowledge Assessment Methodology – or KAM – an interactive benchmarking tool which now consists of 83 structural and qualitative variables for 140 countries around the globe to measure performance on the KE pillars against an imagined perfect score.

A Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) is generated giving an overall score, though scores can be broken down around each of the four pillars. Development advice is then fed out around a series of ‘product lines’.

The simplest ‘product line’ is a ‘do-it-yourself’ assessment of your economy in relation to either; all countries, others in the region, income, and so on. The user is also able to either generate a Basic Scorecard using around 14 key variables, or move to more complex representations that are based on respectively combinations of the 81 variables, the performance scores of all countries, comparisons over time, cross country comparisons, and so on. us-china-india.jpg

Other ‘product lines’ include the Bank doing policy reports for specific countries (for example, El Salvador, Turkey, Morocco), comprehensive assessments (for example India, China, Korea, Chile, the African region), and running learning events to exchange best practice. GlobalHigherEd’s blog on the reform of the Malaysian higher education system following a World Bank’s 2007  review is a good example of how the KAM is being used to reshape higher education policy and practice.

At one level this is fun. However this is a very serious business – as the benchmarking works like a learning tool. You learn where you are in this imagined perfect knowledge economy, and then strategize as to how to get to your preferred position using the pillars as policy guides and levers. top-ten-country-comparison.jpg

Benchmarking, ranking and other kinds of league tables are becoming more and more popular as tools for promoting particular kinds of learning among institutions, nations and regions. GlobalHigherEd has been profiling some of these – for instance PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, the OECD’s Innovation Scoreboard, and University Rankings.

Like all of these systems of ranking and benchmarking, the most interesting issue with the World Bank’s Knowledge Assessment Methodology is what is being measured, why, and with what likely outcomes? Leaving aside the thorny issue of the efficacy of the indicators for the moment (such as the Human Development Index which is one of the 83 indicators making up the KAM), as we run through all 83 indicators, we get a quick sense of the political nature of the project; the production of a world order that values global trade, has few bans on imports and licensing, strong protections in place for intellectual property (IP), a system for ensuring payments for royalties and IP across borders, high levels of adult literacy, landlines and computers to support global connectivity, and so on. Absent in this list of indicators are ways of representing unpaid labor, alternative systems of knowledge production, cultural knowledges, and so on.

The developed Western economies are more likely to be advantaged by this kind of economy – given their interest in extending their services sectors globally and securing greater returns from the high end of the value chain. However, in areas like education, the policy levers are still rather crude. It is difficult to see, for instance, how investments in higher education per se will generate those innovative, creative and entrepreneurial individuals who are regarded as the engines of this new economy.

Susan Robertson

2 thoughts on “Producing the global knowledge economy: the World Bank and the KAM

  1. Pingback: Graphic feed: ‘knowledge economy index’ for Middle East and North Africa « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: a ‘problem/solution toolkit’ with problems? « GlobalHigherEd

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