Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 21, December 1997 


Book procurement: will the World Bank change strategy

James Tumusiime

James Tumusiime is vice-chairperson of APNET and Managing Director, Fountain Publishers Ltd, PO Box 488, Kampala, Uganda. Fax +256 41 251160

For many years the World Bank procurement policies for textbooks have been a subject of intense criticism by publishers in developing countries. In those countries where the World Bank is the main provider of resources for financing book procurement, local publishers rarely get a chance to participate in the tenders. Instead it is the publishers in the north that provide the books through the Bank's policy of International Competitive Bidding (ICB).

This policy has in the past been defended by the Bank's officials on the grounds that it promotes competitive efficiency while offering equal opportunity to all its members. Although, blindly or out of pressure from the Bank, most governments have embraced such programmes, the results on the ground have proved that they offer no long-term solutions to the chronic shortage of books in third world countries.

No one understands this better than publishers in these countries. Most of them have always argued that books as objects of culture cannot be procured in the same way as other consumer products like soap or blankets. They instead called for a system that invigorates local publishing industries as the only way of ensuring a sustainable supply of textbooks in developing countries. The African Publishers Network (APNET), which groups together most African indigenous publishers, even went to the extent of sending a goodwill mission to the Bank's headquarters in Washington in 1993 to press this point home.

APNET and its members have since increased the pressure on the Bank and other donors to education, and the beneficiary governments, to review critically the straight-jacket book procurement policies in order to make them more sensitive to requirements of individual countries, so as to build local capacity.

After years of bureaucratic indifference, the Bank appears finally to have listened. On 9 and 10 September, the Bank hosted a seminar at its headquarters in Washington DC bringing together 63 participants including publishers from Europe, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Other participants were government officials, publishing consultants, multilateral donors, NGOs, UN and other international agencies, besides the host officials from the Bank.

The seminar, called Understanding the Educational Book Industry, was convened by the Bank's principal operations officer from the education secretariat of the human development department, Mr Sverrir Sigurdson, chaired by another senior Bank official, Mr James Socknat, and facilitated by a World Bank consultant on textbooks, Mr Philip Cohen.

The seminar focused on four main themes: policy dimension in the procurement and provision of textbooks; trade and finance issues for the publishing industry; protectionism versus free competition publishing; copyright and publishing partnerships.

The two-day seminar provided a rare opportunity for publishers from different backgrounds to share ideas and to discuss openly with donors and publishing consultants various issues pertaining to the book industry. By the end there was a broad convergence of minds.


This topic understandably generated a lot of debate, although most participants agreed that the Bank's procurement policy through ICB was rigid, and that it favoured multinational publishers. This policy had failed to stimulate the growth of local publishing industries in developing countries and had therefore kept the recipient countries dependent on externally sourced books which have to be financed with donor funds. The view from the seminar was that the World Bank and other donors to education should provide for local capacity building in their procurement programmes.

Another issue related to procurement was choice. It was a general view that the era of a single textbook coming from a monopoly publisher, whether parastatal or private, is gone. The feeling was that teachers, who use the books, should be the ones to select which books to use from a range of competing titles from different publishers. This encourages competition, enhances the quality of books, brings down prices and encourages constant contact between publishers and end users of the books.

Trade and finance

Some time was spent discussing the financing and viability of the publishing business in general and developing countries in particular. It was clear from the papers presented that most trade that takes place in books is from north to south. Most major language blocs, i.e. English, French and Spanish are dominated by a small number of publishers based in the north, who often take advantage of World Bank funding to supply books to developing countries. It was noted that, due to infrastructure and other trade barriers, little trade in books goes on between developing countries.

Attempts to explore ways of financing publishing houses in developing countries with the assistance of the World Bank did not yield much. Most of these houses suffer a chronic shortage of working capital and this limits their ability to compete with multinationals in tendering for donor-funded book procurement projects. Breaking out of the cycle could only be possible if these publishers are facilitated to sell their books to schools within these projects. Only then would they be able to raise capital.

Lack of publishing skills, poor technology and limited financial resources were identified as major bottlenecks to most publishing houses in developing countries. Yet it is people in these firms who understand their cultural surroundings, their education needs and socio-economic conditions in their countries better than those in the publishing firms from the north whose books are procured under the donor projects.

Protectionism versus free competition

From the outset it was clear that the mood in the seminar was against any form of government-backed monopolies. Publishers from developing countries complained of the way governments crippled the publishing industry by setting up parastatal monopolies to provide textbooks. Such policies were viewed as anachronistic in the age of World Bank- and IMF-sponsored policies that encourage liberalisation and private-sector-led reforms. Attempts by a participant from C�te d'Ivoire to defend a monopolistic partnership between a French firm and a government parastatal drew fire from some APNET officials, who argued that it was an attempt by the French companies to cripple indigenous publishing firms in the country.

Publishing partnerships and copyright

Lack of publishing skills, poor technology and limited financial resources were identified as major bottlenecks to most publishing houses in developing countries. Yet it is people in these firms who understand their cultural surroundings, their education needs and socio-economic conditions in their countries better than those in the publishing firms from the north whose books are procured under the donor projects.

The case studies from Hachette of France and Macmillan of UK were presented as possible working models that have been able to develop mutually beneficial relationships, by transferring technical skills and economic resources from north to south and combining them with the knowledge of local people to produce good quality books.

The seminar also discussed the need to respect copyright as the foundation for the publishing industry and orderly trade in books.

The future

Two days of intensive discussion within and outside the seminar room appear to have reinforced the thinking of the World Bank officials to start moving in the direction of ensuring sustainable book development. It was however not clear how and when the Bank would translate the recommendations of the seminar into tangible policies and actions. Another problem was that, with no high-level representation of governments, the Bank would find it difficult to implement their change in thinking.

That notwithstanding, the seminar appears to have achieved the objective of harmonising thinking in all those involved in the provision of books around the key issue `sustainability', a word that had all along been missing in the vocabulary of the Bank's book procurement officials. [end]  [BPN, no 21, 1997, p 2.]

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