World Bank moves to increase civil society engagement

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim speaks to economist Dante Contreras and members of civil society in July 2013 in Santiago, Chile. Photo by: Dominic Chavez/World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

As the World Bank gears up for internal reforms to implement its new strategy, nongovernmental organizations, advocacy organizations and other civil society groups are hoping that they don’t lose out in the new order.

There’s general optimism among civil society groups about the bank’s renewed pledges to consult with outsiders and seek feedback from beneficiaries. The bank, though, has had to address fears in some quarters that environmental and human rights safeguards will be diluted as the bank seeks more efficiency and public-private partnerships.

Some view the bank’s new focus on partnerships largely means increasing its engagement with the private sector. But Sanjay Pradhan, the World Bank vice president tasked with leading the reform effort, said that contrary to perceptions, civil society partners will play an equally important role.

“If we are going to achieve these goals, it’s very important to empower citizens and civil society groups to be the voice of the poor,” he said.

And to make sure that voice is heard, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said on Friday that the bank needs to become a better listener, promising that the bank would get feedback from 100 percent of project beneficiaries, up from 34 percent currently.

Pradhan said that type of feedback would likely come in the form of data sent via mobile phones by beneficiaries, but NGOs would be crucial to the effort, serving as intermediaries between citizens, governments and the bank, and helping to implement the types of feedback systems the agency was going to promote.

He pointed to the bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability as an example of how the institution is working to empower local NGOs for exactly that type of role.

Under the new program, the bank announced grants last week to 12 local groups in countries around the world for projects to improve service delivery by, for example, tracking teacher absenteeism in Malawi or increasing the transparency of health care systems in Indonesia.

Pradhan said that the partnership had generated so much interest that the bank was looking for more funds to expand the competition to 32 countries.

The bank has also said that outside groups will play a central role in the bank’s systematic country diagnostic, a new process to identify major development challenges at the national level as well as of the consultation country strategies, now known as country partnership frameworks.

“It’s going to be a collaborative process,” Pradhan said.

Officials at the bank pointed to the recent strategy development in Morrocco as an example of the type of wide-scale consultation that the bank would be shooting for.

In that vein, the bank also announced the preliminary launch of a new portal for worldwide consultation activities as well as new guidelines for consulting with outside groups about the bank’s activities.

“A major pillar of the new strategy about engaging nontraditional actors and finding the best ideas wherever they come from and many of those come from civil society,” said Carolyn Reynolds, a senior communications officer at the bank.

Despite all of the talk of consultation and collaboration, the bank has not been known for its success in engaging NGOs, especially local ones; observers inside and outside the bank recognize the difficulty of ensuring that outside concerns are considered before projects become fait accompli.

“There’s a lot of inconsistency in the way we consult and we readily admit that,” said John Garrison, a senior civil society specialist at the bank. “I think what we are trying to do is to stretch the limits of what we can do within the structure of the World Bank.”

Mette Kinoti, the head of program management at the African Medical and Research Foundation, described the frustrations many local NGOs have had working with the bank. In Kenya she said, the agency considered a project a success as long as money was spent and accounted for. The expertise of local NGOs was rarely considered, she said, until she was finally able to take bank staff out to the field to show them varying results the projects were getting, and was able to convince the bank to utilize her group for local capacity building. But she agreed that the bank seemed to be getting better.

As the bank aims to work more with the private sector and decrease the implementation time for its own projects, some fear, though, that the consultation with NGOs and advocacy groups will take a backseat. The consultative process is often time-consuming and expensive after all, and private sector partners may consider it extraneous “gold-plating.”

Meanwhile, the process to update the bank’s safeguards, which are designed to ensure that human rights and environmental concerns are considered when approving and implementing projects, is entering its second phase, and advocates are keeping a close eye on how the bank carries out the process.

President Kim dismissed fears that the bank would be diluting its safeguards as it moves forward with its new strategy.

“I think there is a way to have both — to protect indigenous people, to protect the environment, while at the same time making rapid progress — and we simply have to get better,” he said.

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About the author

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    Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. His coverage focuses on Latin America and World Bank affairs, as well as Washington's global development scene. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia - one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.