World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Photo by: Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When physician, anthropologist and former president of Dartmouth College Jim Yong Kim became president of the World Bank in 2012, he told the international development community that he planned to turn the world’s largest multilateral donor into a “solutions bank” — one that works with its partners and clients to apply “evidence-based, nonideological solutions to development challenges.”

He said the World Bank would advance a “science of delivery” to help governments and implementers follow through on commitments and overcome obstacles — to move beyond what needs to be accomplished, and tap into how it gets done — to develop a systematized global library of development knowledge that can be applied to development hurdles around the world.

Since Kim first used the term “science of delivery,” bank staff and thought leaders in the development space have engaged on the concept — debating whether global development should be equated to a “science”, and raising questions over how that science — if it exists — should be enacted.

So how far has Kim, the World Bank, and the wider global development community come in enacting a science of delivery?

With the launch of a new Global Delivery Initiative with over 30 partner institutions during the World Bank’s spring meetings last month, many industry leaders feel one step closer to achieving a global library of development knowledge. But even bank insiders are quick to recognize the challenges that remain.

“It’s a bit like starting a firm,” the World Bank’s Global Practices chief economist Jeffrey Lewis told Devex. “It’s fine when it’s just you, and it’s probably OK when it’s you and your family, but then when all of a sudden you’ve got affiliates scattered all around the world, then it’s a little bit harder to keep everybody on the same page.”


Kim’s emphasis on delivery and systematically sharing knowledge can be traced at least back to his time at the World Health Organization from 2003 to 2006. It was at the WHO where Kim noticed that policymakers and health care workers with access to similar resources achieved different health outcomes. In 2007, Kim co-founded the Global Health Delivery Project at Harvard University to systematize the knowledge and expertise of global health care programs with an emphasis on delivery.

At Dartmouth, Kim helped jump-start the Center for Health Care Delivery Science — a partnership driven initiative dedicated to improving service delivery.

Then Kim came to the World Bank where he sought to push the envelope at the institution by making the transition from a “knowledge bank” to a “solutions bank” that enacts a systematic science of delivery.

“I have tried to build that kind of system in every institution I’ve been in,” the bank chief said in an exclusive interview with Devex editor-in-chief Raj Kumar.

“I have not yet seen one that’s more capable of doing it than the World Bank,” Kim added.

From the outset, Kim’s effort to champion the new term attracted a combination of interest and puzzlement about what it actually meant — and at least some interest in helping turn the idea into something meaningful.

“The fact that the expression ‘science of delivery’ is so new should come as a relief to those Bank staff who think it must be old but feel nervous admitting they don’t quite know what it means,” Adam Wagstaff, a research manager at the World Bank, wrote in an April 2013 World Bank blog post.

“Its newness also presents … an opportunity — to help concretize a new expression,” Wagstaff added.

A push to ‘concretize’ science of delivery

During the summer of 2013, the World Bank and the Korea Development Institute convened a global conference on the science of delivery in Seoul, South Korea. During that event, the idea emerged to push forward an initiative that incorporates a wide variety of stakeholders and development institutions with the ultimate goal of developing an evidence base of delivery knowledge — a global library of case studies yielding transferable development solutions.

This new initiative came to be known as the Global Delivery Initiative, and in the fall of 2013 the World Bank set to work implementing the idea in collaboration with its partners.

A Science of Delivery Team composed of five bank staffers was put in place to institutionalize the concept within the bank and push forward the GDI with bank partners including the German development agency GIZ, China’s finance ministry, the Korea Development Institute, the European Union, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton University, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Overseas Development Institute.

The team prioritized engagement with World Bank projects during the implementation phase to develop feedback loops, capture knowledge in real time and allow for “mid-course corrections” — something that bureaucracies don’t typically encourage, Jeffrey Lewis, Global Practices chief economist at the World Bank, told Devex.

In order to deal with contextual challenges, the concept of “best practices” had to be eliminated, said Maria Gonzalez de Asis, head of the World Bank’s Science of Delivery Team.

Lessons learned from one particular context must be adapted to another context and then scaled up, Gonzalez de Asis told Devex.

The Science of Delivery Team then focused on creating guidelines for developing case studies that communicate complex development solutions in simple and transferable ways — identifying behavioral incentives or the political economy in a particular context and moving beyond “what” needs to be delivered and getting to “how” delivery happens.

With feedback from over 30 organizations, the team developed “common guidelines” for writing case-studies. The compilation of these case studies and the knowledge they glean around “how” delivery happens is the “core” of the Global Delivery Initiative, Gonzalez de Asis said.

Launch of the Global Delivery Initiative and next steps

With more than 30 official partner institutions, the Global Delivery Initiative officially launched last month during the World Bank’s spring meetings in Washington, D.C. While participants expressed optimism at the launch and an eagerness to achieve a robust global library of development knowledge, it’s clear that significant challenges remain.

For Lewis, growth of the GDI is one such challenge.

Expansion beyond the “hard core of early supporters” can make the GDI difficult to manage, the World Bank official said. Moving forward, the GDI will have to find the balance between “growth and expansion” on the one hand, “and on the other hand wanting to some extent protect the brand,” Lewis said.

Lewis also recognized the challenge associated with developing case-study guidelines for all current and future partners to follow.

“I will be the first to admit … case study methodology … means all things to all people,” Lewis said, explaining that each organization has their own preferred method of developing case studies, and that establishing a tightly defined, more constrained methodology that all partners adhere to won’t be easy to do.

“We’ll just have to see how it evolves and be open to it. I don’t think the answer is then to try to overregulate,” Lewis said.

In the meantime, following a request from GDI partners in China and Korea, Gonzalez de Asis and the rest of the bank’s Science of Delivery Team are preparing to deliver a case study training program in China and Korea at the end of the month.

Scientific method of development?

As the process to “concretize” the science of delivery moves from idea to action, there has been no shortage of critical voices.

Kevin Watkins, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute wrote in August 2013 that while the idea of a science of delivery brings an essential focus to addressing gaps in delivery, “society is not a petri dish in which the results of microbiological interventions can be identified, isolated and transferred.”

Watkins advised proponents of science of delivery to consider politics more heavily in the equation — “to turn the spotlight on the political forces and power relationships that deliver poor-quality services and perpetuate high levels of inequality.”

Owen Barder, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development cautioned that it isn’t enough for the World Bank and its partners to add politics to the equation, but rather that they have to incorporate complexity.

“Trust, incentives, education, attitude, history, religion, politics and power” are some of the factors that make development complex according to Barder.

“If the idea of science of delivery means breaking the problem down into predictable, soluble parts, using rigorous evaluation and spreading best practice, then it is a doomed enterprise,” Barder wrote. “It is doomed even if we extend our analysis to include politics and power … You cannot design solutions to complex problems: They can only be solved by adaptation and iteration.”

Lewis acknowledges the complexity of development and recognizes the importance of context specific environments, but said that knowledge and learning in the development space can be done better and can lead to transferable solutions.

“For me the ‘science’ part of the science of delivery doesn’t come because we will get a scientifically concluded factoid. It comes because over time we will get an aggregation of these and begin to be able to look for the patterns,” Lewis told Devex.

What do you think of the concept of “science of delivery,” and the new Global Delivery Initiative? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.

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