What's in a World Bank pledge?

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim speaks at the Global Initiative to End Routine Gas Flaring event during the financial institution’s annual spring meetings in Washington, D.C. Attended by government, industry and development representatives, the World Bank spring meetings are a great platform for the announcement of new funds, pledges and promises. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The World Bank spring meetings last week were the launch site of pledges and new funds worth billions of dollars.

But where is the money going? What is a “pledge,” exactly?

Among many new initiatives, resources were committed for Ebola, nutrition and its first-world problem, “social gastronomy,” which is a fledgeling movement to create socially conscious, delicious and globally accessible food.

The announcements of these initiatives were received well at the meetings, even if the details and timelines were left a little ambiguous.

In fact, more than one bank official and NGO representative in attendance last week stressed the importance of keeping track and setting benchmarks for these initiatives to make sure the money reaches its destination.

At the end of a session called “The Future of Food: A Conversation Between Jim Yong Kim and David Chang,” Arielle Johnson — the head of research at the MAD food coalition — brought up the need for follow-through in efforts like these. When she finished speaking, a team of waiters fanned into the crowd to serve tiny bowls of sustainably sourced gourmet salad. The vegetables and fruits in the salad weren’t cosmetically appealing enough for grocery stores, Kim explained, and yet didn’t the salad taste great? Kim’s message about food waste was clear and the crowd enjoyed it.

But hold on, what was that other person saying about accountability?

Kim got back on stage. He told members of MAD, “We promise that over the next six months we will engage very deeply and see if we can start a movement that really will guide us with feeding everyone on the planet.”

If Kim also offered the details of that engagement, his explanation was lost in the rush for free samples. The financial and logistical terms of Kim’s “social gastronomy” pledge remain vague.

A bank representative told Devex the event was meant to “jump-start conversation” on the “the first-of-its-type” topic, but that no numbers would be attached to the pledge.

“I think this is part of Kim’s effort to involve civil society and the private sector in the spring meetings,” Nicolas Mombrial, head of Oxfam International’s Washington, D.C., office told Devex. “It’s nice to hear, but how do you track that? It isn’t clear what the commitment actually involves.”

Bank commitments with money behind them don’t suffer from the same ambiguity. The $650 million Ebola pledge, Mombrial added, is one case in which the bank has gone to great lengths to oversee the money’s progress toward a goal. Another is the quite revolutionary Power of Nutrition Fund — which encourages private funding by matching contributions up to sixfold from high-yield individuals.

“Kim is showing an overall sincere willingness to be held accountable,” Mombrial said, citing the President’s Delivery Unit, a monitoring mechanism Kim implemented to keep bank operations transparent.

But in some cases, the bank’s ability to closely monitor funds diminishes when money changes hands, and some civil society leaders want the bank to do more than just clarify its own commitments.

“When we make these pledges, let’s also set up accountability mechanisms to make sure the money is spent in the right way,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, told participants and bank executives after the announcement of new Ebola funds.

At the same time, members of Sierra Leonean civil society gathered outside the conference room to protest their president, who they claim is responsible for misplacing more than $3 million of the billions pledged or spent by donor governments, charities and multilateral institutions.

While comprehensive oversight is a lot to ask from the bank as it continues to aid governments in crisis, another NGO worker who wished to remain anonymous to protect staff based in West Africa explained that the bank could be doing more to follow through on holding governments accountable.

“It’s part of the checks and balances of development to publicly tell governments that corruption isn’t acceptable,” the NGO worker said.

While the Ebola crisis and social gastronomy exist on very different planes in the development landscape, they are both granted an audience through the wide platform of the bank’s spring meetings. But the integrity of the bank’s pledges, as well as its endorsements, depend not just on whether they sound — or taste — good, but on what they actually contain.

See more of our coverage of the 2015 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, including conversations between Devex and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.