Measure for measure: the drive to end extreme poverty

The 12th floor of the World Bank Group (WBG) headquarters in Washington, DC makes quite an impression. Visitors are ushered towards a high-ceilinged atrium, the walls of which are adorned with a mix of African art and computer screens showcasing the latest financial data and trends from around the world. It is from this open-plan environment – hushed, focused and driven – that President Jim Yong Kim and his colleagues oversee the operations and actions of more than 10,000 staff in 120 offices worldwide. Their dual tasks? To end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity.

President Kim – a doctor by training and former director of the HIV/AIDS Department at the World Health Organisation (WHO) – has a background steeped in development. Although he was in academia just prior to joining the WBG in 2012, he is also cofounder of Partners in Health, a pioneering organisation dedicated to treating poor people in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and other developing countries. Soon after taking over at the WBG he announced that it was ‘no more business as usual’ by unveiling a set of sweeping internal reforms to complement the renewed push against extreme poverty (bringing it down to 3% of the global population).

Helping him in these tasks is Melanie Walker, who not only sits with him on the 12th floor, but serves as his senior advisor and head of the WBG’s recently-created delivery unit; a big role, but one she is clearly relishing. “The development landscape has changed quite a bit since the last major reorganisation at the Bank more than a decade ago,” she says. “The sustainable development goals are taking shape, new partners are entering the arena and the way international organisations coordinate are all evolving. There is an emerging conversation around what development means in this new era and we’re certainly right in the heart of that.”

‘A mix of science and art’

The reform programme underway at the WBG – both cultural and operational – is designed to help transform the economic and social welfare standards of more than 1 billion people who still live in destitution around the world. The changes involve breaking down silos between the different organisations within the WBG to enable stronger knowledge transfer and efficiency savings and better align budgets with strategy.

“There are some cultural changes under way here at the Bank, with a renewed focus and resolve around delivery,” says Walker. “Early in his presidency, Dr Kim came in with a very strong belief in the science of delivery. That terminology has been perceived in different ways by different audiences – some see it as an art, others as a science but personally I think it means a very healthy mix of both. I believe he is the most data-driven president the World Bank has ever had. Part of this is certainly due to the luxury of actually having the data – my hunch is his predecessors would have taken a similar approach had the technology been there – but he is very transparently using data to improve delivery, iterate, adapt and course-correct along the way, across all aspects of our performance whether they relate to reforms or poverty data.”

It was this approach that prompted the creation of the President’s Delivery Unit (PDU) in August 2013. The PDU both monitors performance and provides a forum for identifying the planning or implementation issues that relate to institutional priorities. “In order to make the bank a more effective actor and partner in this changing landscape, some new operational, financial and knowledge-based solutions needed to be implemented,” says Walker. The PDU’s role is to help define, monitor and communicate progress on these priorities, setting out progress and results on an external website. The work involves linking operations and processes to poverty goals, bringing together resources to accelerate progress, and promoting coordination in cross-cutting areas. There is also a formal and strong collaboration with WBG colleagues who work on the wider corporate scorecard. This close alignment ensures that the organisation’s indicators and metrics remain connected at all times.

“Delivery units can be helpful to drive institutional performance around priorities by tracking progress against targets, using metrics that resonate across an organisation,” continues Walker. “The challenge around calling our team and collection of priorities a ‘delivery unit’ here is that it is we are only a part of the story, as we depend on our country members and our partners to deliver – they’re the ones who do the heavy lifting in the field. We provide world-class knowledge, financial resources, convening power and help grow partnerships – so we do our best to track progress against what we actually do. We want to enable but also be honest about what we contribute.

The sheer scale of the WBG’s operations means that tracking every single activity is nigh on impossible, however. “As most institutions do, we have a corporate scorecard that contains many metrics. The president certainly supports and follows the scorecard metrics, but it would be impossible for him to track every single one.  So we do our best to identify and cascade metrics that are indicative of larger issues or represent key drivers of change in order to monitor performance as a group.”

The indicators tracked within the PDU include poverty-focused delivery commitments such as financial access, climate change and Ebola crisis response, and reform-focused commitments like project preparation time and citizen engagement. “We’re very mindful about separating our poverty targets from our reform targets, because we want to demonstrate how we are improving and repositioning our institution in order to meet our twin goals,” adds Walker. “Our reform targets about the institution’s internal activities help demonstrate how we are taking steps to improve our own performance. But more importantly, we also have poverty-focused targets that help us make sure we make progress towards our 2030 deadline for ending extreme poverty.”

Data dashboard

So, how does the delivery unit actually work? Targets are set by the president and his senior leaders, with input from around the institution. A road map including indicators and accountabilities is then shaped with each of the teams responsible. Data is collected and analysed for each of the priorities as soon as it becomes available. Regular meetings are scheduled with the teams throughout the organisation that are accountable for each of the priority areas, in order to provide an open forum for discussion around the challenges and opportunities that arise.

“There are a little more than a dozen people on the executive team,” says Walker, “and we all work together in different ways to support the priorities, but the PDU itself has a different structure and function than you might see in government delivery units which have line ministries that report in. What we try to do is establish alliances and relationships with the teams at the working level, while having constant dialogue with the leaders. When we troubleshoot with the teams, we aspire to be a friendly voice. We try to collaborate, enable and encourage. We want to hear about problems before they reach a crisis point, advocate for great work as it evolves and provide a safe space for discussion.”

To this end, data and transparency are critical. “The magic happens when there is robust data,” she reiterates “Some of our priorities offer a quarterly or even more regular frequency of collection, which ensures we can iterate and adapt along the way. Finding the right targets is super important but we just don’t see a downside to putting everything out there. We are about transparency. We want our data to be open and the more we share the better, since more people tracking, sharing and learning together keeps us all honest and focused.”

A leading example is the WBG’s recent initiative to geo-map their projects around the world. “The president had been told quite a few times that one of the hardest parts about working with the Bank was that people didn’t know where we worked or what we did in certain countries,” Walker points out. “And so he committed, as a first step, to mapping all of our investment projects by location and sector. There was quite honestly a lot of resistance to this target, but the institution pulled together and geo-mapped all of our projects. We’ve learned that this has several benefits. First, it ensures that all of our data complies with international standards and is fully accessible to everybody, including partners. It also helps demonstrate our resource allocation regionally, by sector, and then can be overlaid on to our sub-national poverty maps to help with decision-making. The third thing we hope it did was drive better data governance – yes, at first it felt disconnected from our daily work but hopefully now the value is a bit more obvious – and a great example of how to use big data to drive effective decision-making.

Another key target overseen last year by the PDU was the commitment to increase investment in fragile and conflict settings. “This was a huge effort across the institution that essentially required policy and process changes in order to redistribute resources,” explains Walker. “In order to increase our IDA [International Development Association] allocation in these places where poverty is really growing and the needs are immense, we had to work together to meet the goal. The president was able to advocate in support of the teams and drive the required changes – it made things happen and we reached 96% of the target.”

Moving forward

Like President Kim, Walker is a doctor by training and she says that her medical background has proved to be ideal for a career in development. “My healthcare background has helped grow my awareness for system-level implications with almost every decision,” she says. “Among many other lessons, training as a doctor has helped prepare me for this role in three big ways: understanding the nature of triage (prioritisation), formulating a differential diagnosis (troubleshooting), and using data to track prognosis and outcomes.

Her professional experience took her from working in hospitals in the US and abroad to a policy position at the WHO. “It was there that I fully understood the importance of funding,” she says. “You can set up great policy frameworks but who is going to pay? In my later years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I spent time learning about how philanthropy can help drive resource mobilisation and bring these policies to life. From the Foundation and now the World Bank Group I have been able to grow my understanding of what it takes to really shape sustainable solutions. While some of that relates to finances, there’s more to the story. If you don’t have clear targets, or a sense for ‘better’ you might lose track of your goals. And it really is true that if you can’t measure something, you will struggle to manage it.”

It is this basic philosophy that underpins her activities alongside President Kim. With inequality on the rise in many developing countries, it is clear there remains much to do. “Ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity are the twin goals which act as the framework for our collective efforts here at the World Bank,” she says. “But as a friend of mine at the Gates Foundation once told me, ‘if you’re not keeping score you’re just practising’. Well, we’re not practising – we’re taking score and we’re serious about ending poverty.”

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