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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Role of Data in Sustainable Development with Jean-Louis Sarbib

This episode focuses on United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16: peace, justice and strong institutions and the role data and information can play in helping developing countries achieve sustainable development. Jean-Louis Sarbib has built a career working across boundaries of public and private international organizations and national governments to address this important challenge. He shares insights into the current challenges facing the field of international development today and how open access to data and information may help solve some of these challenges.

Jean-Louis Sarbib

I think that in international development, there are more and more efforts to gather data, to use it in a way that can inform policy. There is a greater desire to listen directly from the people we're trying to help from constituencies themselves, so I'm encouraged to see that there is more information. All of this provided that we deal with the cancer of “post-truth” because, you know, you assume that when people see data that they will trust it. They will trust it to be a reflection, however imperfect data, as always, are of reality. But if you refuse to accept economic data, or if you look at them through the prism of preconceived ideas, then it won't have the cleansing effect that we hope for.”

– Jean-Louis Sarbib, Former Senior Vice-President for Human Development, World Bank

Background reading:

  • Watch a video from Sarbib’s recent visit to Northwestern Buffett during an event called: “New Frontiers in Global Research Series: Education, Science, and Technology for a More Sustainable World”
  • Find out more about Sarbib’s work with Centennial Group International

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today's guest, Jean-Louis Sarbib, has spent more than 25 years at the World Bank serving as vice president for Africa, vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, and senior vice president for Human Development. And he received the World Bank's Lifetime Award for Diversity and Inclusion. He also served as chief executive officer at Development Gateway, which is an international nonprofit dedicated to supporting the use of data, technology and evidence to create accountable institutions. And today, he's director of Middle East and Africa programs and a distinguished fellow at the Centennial Group International, which is a strategic consulting firm working in emerging markets. Welcome, Jean-Louis. We thank you so much for being with us today.

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:01:16] Thank you very much for having me. It's great to be with you.

Annelise Riles [00:01:19] So, today we're talking about United Nations sustainable development goal number 16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions. And so we were thrilled to have you with us today to talk about your work across boundaries of public and private international organizations and national governments to address this important challenge. Tell us a little bit about how you got started in development efforts and how the world has changed in the field.

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:01:49] Well, I was always interested in big geopolitical issues. I studied them through the lens of economic and social development. My first real job on development was during the first oil crisis in the seventies, when I worked with the French government to try and plan the response of France and the kind of policies to be put in place. Then I did some teaching and in 1980 I joined the World Bank because it was a very nice way to marry theory and practice. And I was there for 26 years and then did something in the private sector and finally went back to development through the lens of a non-governmental organization first and now as a strategic consulting firm. So, I've seen the issues from various angles. And as you said, the field has changed considerably. You know, in the seventies when when I started, we were still in the post-independence period for many countries, especially in Africa, and the organizations like the World Bank or the IMF and the donor agencies in the various governments of the rich countries where the key actors. And over the years, we've seen this really evolve in the right direction with many more actors coming in, whether it's large organizations such as the Gates Foundation. And most importantly, we've seen the countries take much more responsibility for their own future, for their own affairs, and involve more and more the civil society organizations, and the more and more the people who are really, in the end, both the actors and the beneficiary of economic and social development. So things have changed a lot.

Annelise Riles [00:03:46] What would you describe as the major challenges facing the field of international development today?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:03:54] Well, I think that we just finished the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And it's fair to say that the world right now is facing a series of very big challenges. There was already a big challenge of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and added to that. We now have the the war in Ukraine and very severe set of consequences as the recovery from the COVID-19, if there was one, was just getting under way. I think that Ukraine and its consequences has created a triple challenge for food, for fuel and for fertilizer. And at the same time, in the background of all this, there is the continued, very real and very existential threat of climate change. So the meeting of these big organizations, I think it's fair to say that the mood was very serious, if not somber, in terms of all the various challenges that the world is facing and all at once. Additionally, it's either been the rich world or China that have been the locomotives for getting the world economy going again. And seems like both these locomotives are not pulling right now. The latest of growth in China are quite worrying in the sense that the growth has reduced and the projections that the IMF and the World Bank are making are promising very, very subdued growth and if not a possible recession. So, I think the challenges are big and they have a very big impact in particular on the poorest countries. You talked about the sustainable development goals and already we are not on track to meet them, especially in many countries on the African continent south of the Sahara. But I think it's a steeper challenge now, and these challenges have to be met in an environment where it's fair to say that cooperation, international cooperation, is not at its best with the big fight between the West and China, with a war in Ukraine and a lot of conflicts that are very detrimental to the SDGs and to peace and to the one as the SDG 16 peace, justice and institutions.

Annelise Riles [00:06:27] Let me ask you about the place of climate in economic development. Of course, there's been some controversy about this at the World Bank recently. To what extent should climate change be front and center in the policies of the World Bank? I take it that you think that it should be front and center. Is that correct?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:06:47] Yeah, it should be, because I think that the two big issues that we've just talked about, whether it's the pandemic or climate, these are not national issues. The pandemic and wind and whatever. Don't know national boundaries. The economists have a term and they they call global public goods, which are things that benefit everybody or can hurt everybody but need to be worked on in cooperation. And I think that the multilateral organizations like the World Bank or to some extent the IMF, have a major role to play in really creating the actions or the policies or proposing the policies that are needed to address is global public goods. And it's not easy if you begin to ask countries that have not developed to not do what the developed countries have done. You have to have some kind of a compensation mechanism in place so that it's the old story of the tragedy of the commons. It's something that benefits everybody, but nobody wants to invest in it because it does not profit simply the people making the investment. So, I think that the World Bank, because it is credible, both at the global level and in many of the countries where it works, has a very key role to play, to bridge that gap between what the countries want and what the world needs. So, I think that it ought to be a big priority. And I think that what was encouraging at the recent meetings is to see how many people are recognizing both the importance of addressing global public goods, whether it's pandemic or climate, and the role that the international organizations need to play and the changes that need to happen for them to be able to play that role. It's not easy, but I think it was encouraging to see at least a consensus of ideas. Now, how do you translate this consensus of ideas into the resources when the economic situations of many countries with resources is so difficult right now and where the politics might change? You know, who knows what's going to happen with the new government in the United Kingdom or if there are changes in the United States in terms of funding those things, when there is a tendency in the world for people to basically look inwards and not worry too much about the policies that are helping their neighbors to say nothing of the climate denialism and all that kind of thing. 

Annelise Riles [00:09:33] You were kind enough to visit us at Northwestern Buffett not too long ago, and you used a really interesting word to talk about this. You talked about international institutions as a catalyst, a way of getting things going. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that in this context of global public goods and unwillingness of governments to collaborate or cooperate?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:09:58] You know what has been a thought of mine after all these years in development is to say that, you know, we are pretty good at knowing what are the necessary conditions for a develop. You need a good macroeconomic framework. You need good infrastructure. You need a good workforce with the right education. But even when you have all of these things, it's not clear that development is going to happen. So in a sense, what I was saying is that in a chemical reaction, sometimes when you put all the elements together for the reactions to happen, you need a catalytic element. And whether international organizations can be this catalyst, I'm not sure. As much as I am that the catalytic dimension has to come from within the countries. It has to be the people or the leadership or you see very, very different examples of the history of development. In the 1950s, Ghana and South Korea had the same GDP per capita. And look what's happened. You have to have the policies, but you have to have more than the policies. You have to as something that is an imponderable, whether it's leadership, whether it's an engaged citizenship. I really wish I knew where the answer is. But when we go back to global public goods, I think that the institutions, the international institutions can play not only a catalytic role, but a financing role as well. And because they have the credibility, they have the knowhow and they have the systems that if we can mobilize enough resources from both the public and the private sector, then these organizations can play a big role. We already seen the creation of a pandemic response fund that is to be managed by the World Bank. Is a bit more of a chaotic situation when it comes to funding climate change. And I hope that the consensus or the convergence of ideas that I spoke about earlier will be helpful in putting some order into what is right now a fairly messy situation when it comes to funding climate action. 

Annelise Riles [00:12:22] So, it's interesting you say that because there are some who would say that these international institutions lack local legitimacy, that their governance structures don't give enough voices to the people who are most impacted by them. I mean, do you think that these institutions can lead as they're currently structured, or do you think that there will be a necessity for some internal reform?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:12:47] Well, like what I said, for the price of oil as a catalyst for or as an encouragement and incentive for green energy, I think that addressing the crisis, the various crises and their differentiated impact on rich and poor countries is going to force these institutions to evolve. I think you're absolutely correct right now that they do not have always the legitimacy that they need to intervene. And we have seen the biggest proof of that is the fact that, you know, the biggest emerging power, China has now created its own development bank, the Asia International Infrastructure Bank, which is capitalized as a multiple of what the World Bank has. And I think to some extent, you need some really enlightened leadership in these organizations to make them truly global and to have a decision making structure and their share structure that reflects not the world of 1945, but the world of 2022. And clearly the beneficiaries of the world of 1945 have a very privileged positions. And as we all know, it's very difficult to give up your privileges, and especially now when the rivalry between the United States and China is what it is. So there's a part of me that believes that the opening up of, say, the World Bank, which is the place I know the best to greater representation by the emerging markets and by China in particular. This window may have closed already. What you're saying is, in my view, absolutely correct, that they need to regain some legitimacy, but that requires the kind of enlightened leadership that I am not entirely sure we are seeing right now on the part of the richer countries.

Annelise Riles [00:14:52] That is fascinating, Jean-Louis, the idea that perhaps this crisis could spur us to be better versions of o0urselves that it could actually lead to reform through the process of having to address the crisis in front of us. Let's hope you're right about that. So, let me ask you, do you see particular issues where you think that collaboration between countries is indeed possible?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:15:19] I think there are two big issues. One is climate, and we talked about it and the other one is really the importance of finding a solution to the debt crisis. A great number of countries are very heavily indebted and they are often indebted to private markets, private capital market. And with the fight against inflation, which is necessary because inflation is terrible, and in particular for the poor, you have interest rates that are going up everywhere. And so these these countries are hit even worse now that the interest rates are going up and you need to really have international cooperation. And there again, it means that new creditors, such as China or others, need to be at the table and need to play by the rules that have often been put together by more traditional creditors like the Paris Club. And right now, you also have an increased role of private sector creditors, capital markets, so that you not only have public debt, but you now have the new creditors that need to be put together. And I think without the G20 have put together a that framework and a common framework for debt treatment. But so far only two countries have been in it and there's not been very much progress. So, I think this debt crisis need to be solved as a co-operative. And similarly, for climate and for getting ready the resiliency to the next pandemic, which is questions of how, of when and not if. So, all of these three things and they were very present. But I have been in this business long enough to know that between the great speeches at national conferences and then the action and the financing of the action, there is often quite a quite a lag. So, there is every reason to cooperate in an environment where, unfortunately, multilateralism is in a bit of a crisis. 

Annelise Riles [00:17:39] That brings us to another issue you've talked about, including here at Northwestern Buffett, which is the importance of data and the role of data in providing accountability to citizens. How do you see access to data playing a role in addressing these challenges that you're describing?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:17:58] I think it's key evidence in foreign policies are key and all the more so in the current, quote unquote, post-truth environment. There's a real sense that, you know, even before this post-truth and fake news and what have you, there was all a certain naivete. And I was guilty as others of that when I was at my NGO dealing with data development gateway that just give information to people and they will use it. That proved to be a very, very naive take on things because then we found that through lots of work and analyzing, why is it that people are using or not using data, that there are lots of factors. Very often the data that they're asked to collect is not useful for them so that they don't pay very much attention and the quality of the data suffers or they are power relations that does not empower them to use data. And the last dimension is that very often for people that means information technology. So, you start building platforms and that is very often how you begin and where the investments go without having to ask what kind of data do you use data for whom to do, what to serve, what purpose? So, we've come to almost a political slash cultural analysis of a data environment before you can put together something that is actually going to be very, very helpful. I think that we're making progress in this direction. I think that in international development, there is more and more efforts to gather data, to use it in a way that can inform policy. There is a greater desire to listen directly from the people we're trying to help from constituency themselves so that. I'm encouraged to see that there is more information. All of this provided that we deal with the cancer of post-truth because, you know, you assume that when people see data that they will trust it. They will trust it to be a reflection, however imperfect data, as always, are of reality. But if you refuse to accept economic data, or if you look at them through the prism of preconceived ideas, then it won't have the cleansing effect that we hope for. 

Annelise Riles [00:20:35] That's so interesting. And absolutely the way we think about it at Northwestern Buffett that you need to bring together almost the anthropology of data consumption and the cultural politics, as you said, of data into the equation as much as the data itself.

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:20:52] Data are not immune to power relations. I think I said that at Buffett and a couple of people came to me to say, "Oh, we didn't think of it that way" but it's so true.

Annelise Riles [00:21:02] What do you mean by power relations in this context?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:21:05] For a very long time. data was power in the World Bank, for example. We did not share data, and it took a revolution to make the World Bank data available and open to anybody. You wanted to use it. It was a source of revenue. Information is is power in many ways. So, that to give information to other people means to give them power. And you know how difficult that is. And in many places, keeping information is giving you an advantage. Data is very political. It's very power sensitive. But again, back to the naivete I was talking about before when we started saying, you know, make this information available, then citizens, where would use it. We forgot that citizens don't always feel empowered, in particular in countries where democracy is weak.

Annelise Riles [00:22:05] So, I want to close by asking you the question that I ask all my guests, which is what keeps you up at night? What are you most worried about? And also, what gives you the greatest deal of hope right now?

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:22:21] Well, I think right now what keeps me up at night is the threat of authoritarianism. It's the threat of a mad man in Russia and what it can do to the rest of the world. And, you know, I have a special place in my heart for the African continent. And once again, Africa, south of the Sahara, is going to be paying the price. And we already are seeing this. So, that's that's what keeps me up at night. And on the other side of the ledger, in all my years working on development, there is a word that is key, and that's the word hope. And how do you keep hope alive? And this same war that worries me so much in Ukraine is also a source of hope in the sense of seeing people that are really defending their country, defending their democracy the same way as you go to a poor place in Africa. And the women farmers are still working very hard and they're still caring for their families and they are still finding hope in a place where hope is very often scarce. So, you have to remember these people and that makes you sleep better at night.

Annelise Riles [00:23:43] What a beautiful statement. What gives you hope is hope itself as it has spread throughout the world. Sally, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been just truly an honor to talk with you. 

Jean-Louis Sarbib [00:23:55] Thank you very much for having me. It's been fun.

Annelise Riles [00:24:00] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at