Are World Bank staffers, and projects, suffering from too much screen time?

Indian activist Medha Patkar speaks to attendees at a World Bank Spring Meetings session on environmental assessment. Photo by: Devex

The World Bank's oversight body warned this week that staffers had become too reliant on computer models, undermining projects thanks to a culture that discouraged investigating on-the-ground impacts for themselves.

Likening it to nature deficit disorder, which arises when people spend too much time looking at screens and not enough time interacting with the real world, Richard Fuggle, an environmental assessment expert, said World Bank staff sometimes believe that “what they see on a screen is more real than what actually exists.”

Fuggle has participated in 13 of the 29 investigations the World Bank’s Inspection Panel has conducted to date. The independent body, which responds to complaints from people who feel they have been harmed by bank-funded projects, has collected and released a set of lessons related to its investigations. Members of the inspection panel outlined their findings in a discussion Tuesday at the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C. One of the broad lessons drawn from the seven recommendations their inquiries surfaced is the need for continuous, proactive and field-based assessments of social and environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of a project.

That means it is not sufficient for World Bank staffers to rely on computer models or second-hand reports about a bank-funded project’s efficacy, panel members said. Those responsible for ensuring a project does not cause undo harm to the environment where it functions can fall into a mode of accepting the reality described in project designs, instead of getting their boots muddy and examining it for themselves, said Fuggle.

Fuggle related his experience with a wastewater purification plant in India. The panel heard complaints from local residents that the plant was causing some kind of contamination. When the inspectors arrived, project implementers assured them the complaints were baseless, that it was a “state of the art” project, and even drank the purified water to demonstrate.

The following day, however, those who had leveled the complaint escorted the inspection panel members into the field. It required a short slog through a sub-tropical jungle and down an embankment. When the group arrived, they discovered that while it was not the purification plant itself that was the problem, a pumping station feeding wastewater to it was leaking waste into farmers’ fields, Fuggle said.

“No one had taken the trouble to actually go out and see what the complaint was about … Everybody knew this was a state of the art water purification project,” he said.

Fuggle added that it is not uncommon for members of the inspection panel to arrive in a community that has leveled a complaint against a bank project to be met with the statement: “You are the first people from the World Bank we have seen.”

Last year, the World Bank adopted a new Environmental and Social Framework, which directs the development finance institution to rely more on countries’ own legal and oversight systems to ensure its “safeguards” against project-induced harm are satisfied.

Zeinab Bashir El Bakri, a member of the inspection panel, shared that one of the lessons gleaned from the panel’s work is that for reliance on country systems to work, the bank must look harder at its borrowers’ capacity to implement good oversight. Not only must a country have the right legal framework in place on paper, but it also must show that the people and offices responsible for carrying out that work have the professional capacity and political power to do it, El Bakri said, pointing to a project supporting South Africa’s Eskom power commission.

Julia Bucknall — the bank’s director for environment and natural resources, who described herself as, “in some respect, the cause of some of these problems that have been outlined” — agreed that sometimes the oversight offices in countries where the bank operates are “not respected by their own teams.”

Bucknall described instances where a country’s ministry might be located in a well-appointed office in the capital, while the same ministry’s health and safety office is located in a ramshackle building somewhere far away.

“Building that respect within the teams of our clients … is an important part of making this system work properly,” she said.

The inspection panel connected each of its seven lessons learned with a country project example illustrating its potential consequences. These ranged from the Uzbekistan rural support project — where inadequate attention to child labor issues eventually compelled the World Bank to partner with the International Labour Organization — to a Nepal power development project, where misinformation about what the bank was actually doing led to opposition among local populations.

To date the inspection panel has received 118 requests and has investigated 34 cases. Twenty-nine of those have involved assessments of environmental harm.

Devex was on the ground at the 2017 World Bank Spring Meetings. Read our coverage and analysis and check out our Facebook Live series. Follow @devex, @Sophie_Ed1984 and @AlterIgoe for more World Bank reporting.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.