On the Front Lines

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

To provide technical assistance and developmental knowledge to fight poverty and disease, the World Bank first had to overhaul its antiquated I.T. system and build a global network.

On the Front Lines

Since Muhsin's departure, three fundamental changes have occurred regarding how the bank deals with knowledge sharing. Today, notes Kim of the WBI, knowledge sharing "has been mainstreamed into the organization, into regions and networks. There are today still more than 400 staff with the words 'knowledge management' in their titles. Also, certain key aspects of knowledge sharing such as Web, video databases and portals have been accepted by nearly everyone."

Second, knowledge sharing today is driven not so much by I.T., but by what the bank calls Thematic Groups (almost 100 communities of practice that individually focus on specific areas such as poverty, agriculture and HIV/AIDS). "It has become decentralized within the various regions and networks," Kim says. "What central coordination remains is with the Knowledge and Learning Board, located in our human-resources unit."

Finally, the focus today has shifted from capturing and organizing knowledge to adopting, adapting and applying knowledge in a way that helps bank staff, clients and partners work more effectively to reduce global poverty. Put another way, the bank—through the WBI, which is responsible for the organization's distance-learning and knowledge-sharing initiatives—has been able to help countries share and apply global and local knowledge to meet development challenges, and have a more immediate impact on the regions in which it deals, Kim says.

For instance, in Brazil, where the WBI has its largest program in Latin America, the bank is working with the government on a number of social and environmental issues with a focus on the Amazon region. The bank has stationed a member of the WBI's environmental and natural resources management team there, while creating a lending program as an incentive to curb environmental abuses in the Amazon. Key to this effort is a 180-hour distance-learning course in environmental law that is being provided in partnership with the GDLN Center in the bank's offices in Brazil, the Ministry of the Environment, Banco de Amazon and the bank's Rainforest Unit. The course is being delivered over a three-month period via network connections to learning sites in all nine states encompassing the Amazon. The more than 500 participants are officials from state and municipal environmental agencies.

One of several bank activities in Brazil focused on dealing with enforcement of environmental policies, this kind of program would likely never have been carried out or even attempted as part of traditional World Bank business strategy, according to Kim.

To facilitate its efforts on the front lines, WBI has its own ICT group, Global ICT (GICT), says Philippe Dongier, manager of GICT's Public Sector Policy and Operations Division. According to Dongier, the group differs entirely from the ISG group now headed by Guy-Pierre De Poerck, Muhsin's successor. "That group functions like the I.T. and communications entities in a large, multinational corporation," Dongier says. GICT functions outside the ISG unit and is concerned with providing technological solutions to client countries. "Our biggest challenge [at GICT] is to bring affordable Internet access and communications infrastructure to the regions of the world that are without them," Dongier explains.

Specifically, GICT's mission is "to unleash the power of human capital and give opportunities to the poor through easy access to information," says GICT external affairs officer Henny Rahardja. GICT was founded officially on Jan. 1, 2000, but was one of the first entities to invest in mobile technology in Zaire in 1989. "That was when no one believed in the potential of mobile phones, least of all in Africa," Rahardja recalls.

According to Dongier, the GICT group is relatively small—about 100 people—about one-fourth the size of the ISG staff. It capitalizes on the bank's networking and I.T. capabilities to Webcast training events and workshops, maintain several internal data repositories and its own Intranet site, and share knowledge in regard to things like best practices.

Despite its relatively small size, GICT takes on ambitious private and public sector projects, working in more than 80 countries. Before his retirement, Muhsin viewed the then-fledgling unit and its parent group, WBI, as likely facilitators of major e-government initiatives around the globe.

Currently, GICT is focusing on Africa's "Missing Link"—25 East and Southern African (E&SA) countries where making an international phone call or connecting to high-speed Internet is cost prohibitive.

This is true because the region is not connected to the global fiber-optic broadband infrastructure, and the population is forced to rely on expensive satellite connectivity to link up with each other and the rest of the world. As the only part of Africa that is not connected to the global broadband infrastructure, E&SA accounts for only 0.07% of the world's international bandwidth capacity.

In late March, the World Bank approved $164 million of what will ultimately be a $424 million financial package to the so-called Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (RCIP) for high-speed connectivity in E&SA. The initial funding will go to building a regional and national backbone terrestrial network, and an undersea fiber-optic network to provide high-speed bandwidth to Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar. The undersea network will be financed by private financing, the terrestrial network by the World Bank. "This is clearly going to make Africa more open to business and help create jobs, and be good for development for a large number of people in Africa," Dongier says.

Typically, GICT will come into a project like RCIP after the bank has established the groundwork with the country's minister of finance. "We'll subsequently begin working with the country's minister of ICT," Dongier says. On these projects, GICT will offer technical expertise and support, help the country issue licensing to Internet service providers and help establish an independent regulatory body. "It doesn't have to be the equivalent of the FCC," Dongier notes. "There are different models. Countries select which one is best suited to them."

GICT provides any number of statistics showing the benefits of bringing information and communications technologies to developing countries As an example, sales growth is 3.24% higher and value-added per employee $3,400 more among developing-country firms that use e-mail to communicate with customers and suppliers. Internet access in schools in countries such as Chile and Thailand has increased tenfold since 1999.

"The World Bank stands ready to work with countries and the international community to determine how best to use ICT for poverty reduction and economic growth," Mohsin Khalil, GICT's director, said in the bank's 2006 Global Trends and Policies report.

Key to this effort is a number of networks and communities of practice that rely on knowledge sharing. Among them are the Development Gateway, a portal Web site that can be used to share information, ideas, knowledge, resources and tools on poverty reduction and development topics; the World Bank Knowledge Sharing Portal, which provides information about the bank's knowledge-sharing strategy and links to many of the initiatives in the bank that generate and share knowledge; and the Global Development Network, which encourages the exchange of developmental know-how through workshops, networking, research grants and training.

Of course, pure altruism isn't in play here. The geo-political stakes are high in developing emerging countries through loans and technology, but the real benefits of Wolfensohn's vision and Muhsin's realization of same, Dongier says, can be seen in a remote region where a village nurse can use a cell phone to get a diagnosis from a doctor 500 miles away, or at a school in the hinterlands of an impoverished country like Burkina Faso where kids can access the Internet for the first time.

Meanwhile, the architect of the knowledge bank and the CIO who facilitated it have long since moved on. Wolfensohn is running his own investment firm in New York and divides his time between residences in Washington, D.C., New York and Jackson, Wyo.

Muhsin has returned to Sri Lanka, where he sits on several corporate boards and is working as a management consultant. There has been no further word from the bank or Muhsin's lawyer on the allegations that followed his retirement.

Next Page: At a Glance: World Bank

This article was originally published on 2007-08-05
Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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