Since its birth in 1944, the World Bank has had a strong focus on development projects. Yet, a project evaluation function was not made operational until the early 1970s. An early attempt to conceptualize project appraisal had been initiated in the 1960s by Albert Hirschman, whose undertaking raised high expectations at the Bank. Yet, Hirschman’s conclusions—published first in internal Bank reports and finally as a book in 1967—disappointed many at the Bank, primarily because they were found impractical. Hirschman attempted to offer the Bank a new Weltanschauung by transforming the Bank’s approach to project design, project management, and project appraisal. Instead, what the Bank expected from Hirschman was not a revolution, but rather an examination of the Bank’s projects and advice on how to make project design and management more measurable, more controllable, and more suitable for replication.
The history of this failed collaboration gives useful insights on the unstable equilibrium between operations and evaluation within the Bank. In addition, it shows that the Bank was active in the development economics debates of the 1960s. These insights should be of interest for those development economists today who reflect on the future of the discipline and emphasize the need for a non-dogmatic approach to the study of development issues. It should also be of interest for the Bank itself, with its renewed attention to the importance of evaluation for effective development policies. The history of the practice of development economics, together with the use of archival material, can bring new perspectives that contribute to a better understanding of the evolution of this discipline.