Wednesday’s report didn’t identify those responsible for the irregularities nor their possible motives.(PTI File Photo)
Wednesday’s report didn’t identify those responsible for the irregularities nor their possible motives.(PTI File Photo)

Ease of business ranking: World Bank staff pressured to ‘manipulate’ data

Members of the team that put together the Doing Business report cited undue pressure -- both directly and indirectly -- to manipulate data for 2018 and 2020, the World Bank said.
By HT Correspondent and Agencies | Hindustan Times, Washington/New Delhi
UPDATED ON DEC 19, 2020 02:30 AM IST

World Bank’s staff members faced “undue pressure” to “manipulate” data and adjust scores in two key reports that ranked nations by ease of doing business and saw improved positions for China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the bank said after an internal investigation.

In the 2018 report released in October 2017, China should have been shown dropping seven places to 85th rather than remaining 78th, the lender said in a review released on Wednesday.

Corrections to data for the 2020 report -- which was released in October 2019 -- meant that Saudi Arabia would not have been the top improving economy, while Azerbaijan would have moved up and been one of the top 10 improvers.

The United Arab Emirates’s score for 2020 should have been slightly lower but its ranking would have been unchanged at 16th, according to the review, which didn’t find any specific irregularities with other nations.

The changes impacted metrics including taxes and credit access. The irregularities were brought to the attention of the management of the Development Economics department and triggered a suspension and probe of the publication announced on August 27.

The review was carried out by senior management in place since June who weren’t involved in the years that were in question, and fixes will be reflected in the next report due in March.

Members of the team that put together the Doing Business report cited undue pressure -- both directly and indirectly -- to manipulate data for 2018 and 2020, the World Bank said.

“The lack of a safe speak-up environment within the DB [Doing Business] team led to a fear of retaliation for those who would escalate and report pressures to manipulate data. This contributed to the compromise of data integrity in the DB report,” the review added.

The data changes were “irregular” because they were made outside of the appropriate review process and were not justified by the publication’s methodology or by any new information provided to the team, the World Bank said.

The press office of the Washington-based development lender declined to elaborate on the allegations of pressure when contacted by Bloomberg News, saying personnel issues are confidential.

Wednesday’s report didn’t identify those responsible for the irregularities nor their possible motives. The issues, including possible misconduct by current or former bank staff, were reported to the institution’s internal accountability unit for further review.

In recent years, there have been questions about the integrity of the rankings. Paul Romer quit in 2018 as the World Bank’s chief economist after questioning changes to Chile’s order in the Doing Business report.

Other scholars have also criticised these rankings. A 2016 Indian Institute of Management Bangalore working paper by Vivek Moorthy and A Arul Jason argued the rankings cannot capture the true cost of doing business in countries with a large unorganised sector. Another 2019 paper by Sabyasachi Kar and others argued the fundamental premise of the rankings, that rules are the be all and end all of Ease of Doing Business in a country, might not be true.

The policy regime in India places a lot of importance on the rankings. After assuming power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government set a target for India to be among top 50 countries in the rankings. In 2014, India was ranked 142nd. It jumped to the 63rd position among 190 countries in May 2019.

The rankings are based on a country’s performance on 10 indicators: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency.

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