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Sifting through the midden of IBRD yearly Reports

Published on 26 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

By sifting through middens, archeologists find information about the daily life of long gone cultures. Linguists have applied the same principle to IBRD yearly reports, and they too have come up with interesting findings.[1] Discarded words reveal much about the person’s[2] or an institution’s mindset as it changes over time.

Spurning content, the authors have counted words, verbs, adjectives, to establish both semantical and grammatical patterns. I recommend the article in its entirety (well written!): if nothing else, one becomes more aware of the silent meanings words and sentence structures reveal. Of course, it is “semantics all the way down”[3] and there is no end to the layers of meanings embedded in what we say. Peeling the onion, so to speak, will make us shed a few tears (of laughter or sorrow) and lower our degree of unwarranted confidence in the “truth” we hold rationally.


Semantic patterns

The authors first look at the frequency of keywords in the reports. Over the first two decades under analysis, words first describing precise, factual and material outcomes (dams, roads, hospitals etc.; and eventually economic development) yield to words about processes and their management. The underlying message is:

  • In the beginning, the IBRD has “expert knowledge” and acts: it causes development. There is pride in the accomplishments and promise, nay certainty, of more progress to come. There is a (false) “temporal structure,” for time is frozen in a steadfast preordained trajectory. Words describe manifest will fulfilled.
  • After 1980, the sobering realization surfaces that the IBRD cannot cause development. At best, the Bank only manages its unsteady advance through time. Equity considerations also emerge, destroying the coincidence of targets and instruments.[4] Actions become indeterminate. Consequently, pride in the Bank’s intentionalities – characterized by qualifiers – replaces the pride in outcomes. For itself, the IBRD appropriates adjectives that express its good intentions: “a sense of compassion, generosity, rectitude, empathy” and capture the high ground. Paternalistically, it assists in bringing about “governance” among its “clients.”

Mono-causal chains become multi-causal, diffuse, and even emergent. “The Bank’s language is becoming more abstract, more distant from concrete social life; a technical code, detached from everyday communication prevails.” The Bank sees underlying commonalities in processes it is involved in, allowing “solutions that are disengaged from any specificity: they are the same for everybody, everywhere.”[5] The road to abstraction is paved with good intentions.

At the outset, I may add, goal and process were embedded in each other. Analysis has led to disentanglement. The price of such alienation is twofold: an inflationary increase in abstraction,[6] but also a tendency to replace success by “best practice.”

Grammatical patterns

Together with abstraction, the authors note, the Bank’s discourse undergoes “bureaucratization.” The discourse “self-organizes around a few elements, and then starts generating its own message.”

  • Verbs yield to “nominalizations” or “derived abstract words:” as an example “act” becomes “action.” Substantives ending in –tion, -sion, -ment replace verbs, transforming actions into “abstract objects” where temporality is abolished. Virtual simultaneity is conjured.
  • Nominalizations conceal actors – people. “Protagonists are often not economic agents, but principles – and principles of so universal a nature, it’s impossible to oppose them. (…) Nominalizations remain unusually frequent because they ‘work’ in so many interconnected ways: they hide the subject of decisions, eliminate alternatives, endow the chosen policy with a halo of high principle and prompt realization.”
  • Pre-modifiers have invaded the reports’ language, shooing away our well-known “post-modifiers” (example: poverty reduction instead of reduction of poverty). They are examples of “management discourse” and “a brisk rhetoric, succinct, even a little impatient;” collaterally they are much less explicit in identifying the meaning relationship.
  • The Bank lists the horns of policy conflicts with the conjunction “and” – making it the highest collocate in its recent reports.

My interpretation of this phenomenon explores this finding further. Conflicts between policies (or values) require compromises – by definition the resultant settlement deviates from the vectors of high principle. In real life, a successful compromise would be the height of good policy. Our silent idealism, however, shuns compromise – it disparagingly calls it “muddling through.” Plato outsourced the lowly compromise to the Demiurge – without instructions on how to get a workable solution.[7] “And” is the surest and simplest of fig leaves hiding policy conflicts – by flagging them without resolving them. At the same time it signals the boundaries of the Bank’s sovereign[8] and discretionary i.e. anomic domain.

The upshot, so the authors, is to elide “all determinants of place and time, and all reference to its producers.” The authors find “the blurred, slightly amorphous temporality of the progressive and the gerund. (…) All extremely uplifting – and just as unfocused: because the function of gerunds consists in leaving an action’s completion undefined, thus depriving it of any definite contour. An infinitely expanding present emerges, where policies are always in progress, but also only in progress. In such doldrums, the only reference point is the Bank – professional and eternal.

When scholars study a thing, they strive

To kill it first, if it’s alive;

Then they have the parts and they’ve lost the whole

For the link that’s missing was the living soul.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust First Part I


Let me go down a few more turtles, however.

Abstraction and a-temporality are the silent heritage of Greek philosophy. They permeate our thinking and our language to the deepest levels, blinding us to the reality of transformation, contingency, and impermanence of all value judgment.

The authors conclude: “All change, and no achievement. All change, and no future.” But that is the Faust’s bargain the West has been longing for: the dream of time and change standing still if only for a moment. Then we would be in utopia – whose original meaning, alas, is not paradise, but no-place.[9]

As it strives toward our unspoken even unacknowledged ideal of timelessness, the Bank fashions it. In its Reports, the Bank bears witness to the Zeitgeist.


[1] Franco MORETTI – Dominique PESTRE (2015): Bankspeak – The language of the World Bank Reports. New Left Review, 92,1 (open access at the NLF site)

[2] It turns out that the lowly “function words” like « the, I, we, and, now, is, then, » say much more about a person that the “content words” that she has carefully chosen to express her thought. See e.g. James W. PENNEBAKER (2011): The secret life of pronouns. What our words say about us. Bloomsbury Press, New York.

[3] I am referring here to the joke about an old lady arguing that the world rests on a turtle. Asked, on what the turtle rested, she answered testily: “It is turtles all the way down.”

[4] Ian TINBERGEN https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Tinbergen proved that there must be as many instruments as there are targets. Economic development cannot by itself, in this view, ensure both growth and equity. Policies become indeterminate.

[5] The authors link this development the overarching concern of the IBRD to rescue lenders: “the banker must be saved before the client.” Without in the least discounting this significant aspect, to me the underlying paradigm shift from outcome to process would have yielded the same jargon even if debts and restructuring had not become priorities.

[6] One could argue that abstraction is akin the “enclosure of the commons,” the appropriation of the process though its professionalization. It categorically separates the acting professional form the consuming client.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demiurge Scorn for the Demiurge is shown most clearly in some extreme neo-platonic and gnostic currents of thought: “In the arch-dualist ideology of the various Gnostic systems, the material universe is evil, while the non-material world is good. Accordingly, the demiurge is malevolent, as linked to the material world.”

[8] See e.g. Giorgio AGAMBEN (2005): State of exception. University of Chicago, Chicago.

[9] The word comes from the Greek: ο (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no-place“, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

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