Clueless at the World Bank

by Sasha Alyson

Anyone in the global South who has regular contact with so-called experts from the World Bank and large NGOs has on occasion wondered, “How can these people be so clueless?”

Here’s a revealing example. A World Bank analysis about childhood development in Laos contains repeated references to “Khmun and Hmong.”

The Khmu and Hmong are the two largest ethnic minorities in Laos, each about 10-12% of the population. If you spend much time here, talking to live Lao people, you’ve heard these names.

There are no Khmun people. I Googled this. Nobody ever called this group Khmun. With one exception: another World Bank Report. But eight times these writers refer to the “Khmun,” never once do they get it right.

Examples from a World Bank report which repeatly refers to a "Khmun" ethnic group -- which does not exist.
This isn’t a typo. They get it wrong every time. To get a job at the World Bank, you don’t need to know what you’re writing about, you just need the right connections.

The report was produced by “a partnership between the World Bank, Plan International and Save the Children International” with funding from Dubai Cares. Clearly none of them felt a need for a Lao person to be involved.

Is this just a quibble? It’s like finding a burglar’s fingerprint. It’s not that we mind the smudge on the windowsill. Rather, a crime has been committed, and this is a clue about who did it and how.

The crime is that throughout the global South, education quality has deteriorated over the past quarter-century. That’s the same period in which the World Bank, the U.N., and international NGOs (such as Plan International and Save the Children International) have taken an ever-stronger role in setting education policies.

Even as everyone else knew the schools were getting worse, the U.N. and NGOs continued pushing for more children in school as the only goal, ignoring the question of whether children learned anything. Comfortable in their offices in New York, Paris, and Geneva, they looked at spreadsheets that showed enrollments going up, and assured the world that everything was going great. (Now, at last, they admit that’s not going so well. But only as an excuse to ask for more funding, so they can increase their meddling.)

All their talk about “we work closely with local people” — it’s just talk. This error would never have happened, had a single Lao person been involved in producing the World Bank report.

But they weren’t. This was the West, certain that it knew best, telling the Rest how to fix their problems. But all the while, it was utterly clueless about the countries it was advising.


Lao PDR Early Childhood Education Project: Snapshot Three: Child Development. The World Bank. Undated.

Other stories of interest: