The World Bank should be accountable and transparent to the people it was designed to benefit. Photo by: Marco Verch / CC BY

In 1993, World Bank executive directors established the Inspection Panel, which gave marginalized and often minority communities adversely affected by World Bank projects a voice inside the institution for the first time.

This landmark decision was motivated by the belief that the World Bank, operating with public funding, should be accountable and transparent to the people it was designed to benefit. That spirit of accountability served the bank, its member states, and the users of the panel for many years.

Now the inspection panel is at a crossroads as the board looks set to finalize a two-year review process — launched largely with the intent to update its mandate by entrusting it with the authority to monitor and offer dispute resolution. But some of the proposals under consideration would grant monitoring and dispute resolution to anyone but the panel — and do not reflect that spirit of accountability

The momentum to create the inspection panel came from outside the bank — from parliamentarians and civil society groups around the world who were outraged by bank-financed projects that had significant negative impacts on people and the environment.

When I was a member of the European Parliament, we adopted a resolution calling for accountability at the bank. An international group of MPs met directly with the World Bank president, and the U.S. Congress held hearings and conditioned its IDA contribution to the establishment of the panel. Civil society around the world demanded that their representatives at the bank support it.

That spirit of accountability was embodied in the panel’s first chairman, Dr. Ernst-Gunther Bröder, a former president of the European Investment Bank, who earned the respect of bank management and civil society by listening to all stakeholders with an open mind. Under his leadership, the inspection panel got its footing in the institution and became a role model for other multilateral financial institutions, which created their own independent accountability mechanisms, of which there are now more than a dozen.

“The notion that the panel is an opportunity, not a burden.”

Those other accountability mechanisms improved on the panel’s model, adding extra functions such as monitoring and dispute resolution, which the panel currently does not have. Requesters file a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel because they want their problems solved, and the board should want the same. But just publishing a panel investigation report does not solve the requesters’ problems — that only comes when the bank and the borrower take steps to address the panel’s findings.

Furthermore, the panel should, but currently cannot, monitor the case and report back to the board on whether those measures were implemented and the problems solved. The panel is the most logical and efficient body to undertake monitoring because it is the most familiar with the facts and the people involved.  

Dispute resolution, or mediation, is a voluntary process that when done well can restore communication and trust between parties and result in durable solutions. To be successful, you need an independent, trusted, and professional body to run the process, ensuring a safe space for dialogue. Dispute resolution is distinct from a process in which the bank itself proposes solutions to affected community members — a function currently fulfilled by the Grievance Redress Service. Instead, dispute resolution facilitates a dialogue between the people who will be living with and operating the project long after the bank is gone.

Unfortunately, after Mr. Bröder left, the panel was confronted with a growing resistance to its work. It is only human that bank management would feel defensive when its decisions and projects are criticized, and board members are understandably sensitive when the panel investigates projects in their countries. But the notion that the panel is an opportunity, not a burden, has been lost. The panel is impartial and it is a conduit — a means by which the board can ensure that development is truly inclusive and does not harm those who were meant to benefit.  

If there were ever a time to reinvigorate the original spirit of accountability, it is now. The panel’s allies must stand up for it, stand up for those who demanded it in 1993 and those who use it today. The board should strengthen the panel’s mandate and entrust it with the authority to monitor and conduct dispute resolution.

About the author

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    Maartje van Putten

    Maartje van Putten was the second European member of the Inspection Panel, after Ernst-Günther Bröder. She is a specialist and was an advisor to many financial institutions creating their own independent accountability mechanisms such as the EIB and the ADB, and a member of several mechanisms. Prior to her work on IAMs, she was a member of the European Parliament for ten years. At present she is the chair of the OECD National Contact Point in the Netherlands, which receives complaints alleging that actions by large multinational corporations do not adhere to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.