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Transforming the World Bank’s Approach to Knowledge: From Rhetoric to Reality

June 25, 2024

We were encouraged to read a recent blog from World Bank Senior Managing Director Axel Van Trotsenburg on how the institution aims to become a ‘Knowledge Bank’. The high-level message is clear: the Bank aims to transform the way knowledge is collected, shared, and used. This is a crucial part of its broader aspiration to build a better Bank, alongside ambitions to create a bigger Bank.

The World Bank has long been a leader on evidence generation and use, and the recent Knowledge Compact, which outlines how the Bank is transforming its approach to knowledge, further cements its track record in this regard.

Digging a layer deeper into the details also reveals several promising features: an emphasis on the significant prospect of technological advances to ensure more rapid learning; a commitment to expand knowledge partnerships with research networks in the Global South; and establishing a Data Bank to increase collection of and access to a wider range of survey and other foundational data.

But implementation is where rubber meets the road, and how to become a ‘Knowledge Bank’ —while also becoming a bigger and better Bank—seems to be an open and complicated question. To operationalize this transformation, the institution must pay careful attention to the brass tacks of how to systematically incorporate knowledge and learning into decision-making.

In earlier CGD work, we argued that the Bank should use evidence, on a more routine basis, from a range of sources—impact and process evaluations, as well as quantitative assessments and implementation studies—to inform its lending. To be successful, the Knowledge Compact must be developed and embedded across the institution’s operational structure—and for reasons of scale and sustainability, we argue that it should be owned and led by operations and supported by the World Bank’s research vice presidency.

We offer three practical ideas for the Bank’s leadership as it operationalizes the Knowledge Compact, with emphasis on scaling efforts across the institution’s operational structure, identifying sustainable and adequate resources, and realigning incentive structures.

1. Mainstreaming thematic learning agendas

Despite the Bank’s record as a leader in evidence generation and use, knowledge, learning, and evaluation related activities remain fragmented.

Going forward, the six Global Challenge Programs—energy, food, water, forests and biodiversity, health emergencies, and digital development—introduced as part of the Bank’s Evolution Roadmap present an opportunity to pilot the development and adoption of systematic learning agendas at the portfolio level (i.e., organized as a “program of programs”).

These agendas would include the use of all available evidence at the design stage of all lending operations and subsequently identify where new evaluative evidence is needed. This would essentially entail starting with a comprehensive review of all the evidence on the instruments and key policy counterfactuals within each practice group’s lending portfolio.

Other important considerations should include linking Project Development Objectives and rhetoric on project impact[1]to the evidence as well as mapping out a clear theory of change and, to the extent possible, benchmarking the magnitude of expected impacts.

2. Marshalling resources

Currently, evaluations and related evidence and learning activities are funded piecemeal and mostly from trust funds. This means resources are insufficient, fragmented, and volatile. Going forward, dedicated resources will be critical to reconfigure and scale the knowledge function. The World Bank should walk the talk and pay for learning and evidence use through its administrative budget.

3. Mobilizing people

Incentives for learning and knowledge generation and use remain diffuse across the Bank’s operational structures. Career advancement linked to Board approvals and disbursements is one example that limits incentives for staff to assess program impacts and outcomes and apply evidence to inform the design of new operations.

Team leaders should also be professionally rewarded for embedding assessments into project design, incorporating lessons into project scale-up, and using iterative evaluation to inform real-time program improvement throughout implementation.

In the medium run, the Bank’s leadership should consider bringing back and expanding a monitoring and evaluation cadre that would work on and provide important lessons from process evaluations and implementation fidelity. These lessons could feed into the programmatic learning agenda, which should be updated at regular intervals.


This is an ambitious effort and operationalization will be complex. The Knowledge Compact recognizes that implementation will be phased and dynamic and offers a detailed timeline. Still tracking progress as plans advance will also be essential to hold the institution to account. We’ll be keeping a close eye on these updates going forward. Watch this space!

[1] For instance, the “billions to trillions” rhetoric implies multipliers from aid-financed public spending that are 2-3 orders of magnitude bigger than what well-identified macro-econometric evidence would support.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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