World Bank staff call for canceling Spring Meetings — permanently

A scene from the 2019 World Bank Spring Meetings. Photo by: Grant Ellis / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The World Bank’s staff association is calling for the institution to cancel its Spring Meetings — for good.

“Do you really need 10,000 people in one place, twice a year, for there to be a meaningful dialogue on development?”

— The World Bank’s staff association

In an update sent to staff and obtained by Devex on Monday, the association’s executive committee applauded recent moves by the bank’s management to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by prioritizing staff safety, including with the indefinite postponement of the Fragility Forum, originally scheduled to take place in Washington this week. The staff representatives highlighted President David Malpass’ encouragement “to postpone large-scale events, especially those that involve international travel,” and they noted that many overseas missions are being canceled.

“The Spring Meetings certainly fit the bill, and we can expect to hear soon that they will be cancelled this year or confined to virtual conferences. Such a move would be welcome, and the Staff Association supports senior management’s cautionary stance in the face of the global health crisis,” they wrote.

“But cancelling the Spring Meetings should not be done just for health reasons. They should be cancelled—not just this year but every year—because they’re at odds with our environmental goals and are a massive waste of time and money,” they added.

To make its case, the staff association came up with estimates of just how much the Spring Meetings cost, both in terms of money and environmental footprint. The 2019 Spring Meetings saw 11,934 registered participants. The association estimated that nearly 10,000 of those flew to Washington and stayed for an average of four days.

Working together with the staff association’s counterparts at the International Monetary Fund, it estimated that the total cost of producing the Spring Meetings was roughly $57 million.

“Compare this figure to the $3 million that senior management wants to save by restricting staff retreats and meetings, or the $3.8 million of savings by restricting staff travel,” the association representatives wrote.

On the environmental front, the staff association tallied up estimated carbon emissions from air travel, electricity in hotels, electricity for the meeting days, and intracity transportation. The association arrived at an estimated carbon footprint for the Spring Meetings of roughly 79,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to driving nearly 17,000 cars for a year.

Unlike the Annual Meetings, which take place in October, the Spring Meetings are not mandated by the bank’s articles of agreement, the staff association pointed out. The gathering in April appears to have grown out of an additional meeting of the bank’s Development Committee in the 1970s. Over the course of four decades, what began as a meeting of 25 people grew into “an international extravaganza of 12,000 participants,” association representatives wrote.

As with the Annual Meetings, the Development Committee closes out the Spring Meetings in the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, “where they struggle to come up with a two-page Communiqué that is somehow different from the one they crafted only six months earlier.”

“Do you really need 10,000 people in one place, twice a year, for there to be a meaningful dialogue on development? The financial and environmental costs are enormous, and the optics are terrible. Maybe COVID19 is our wake-up call,” the association representatives wrote.

They noted that Malpass has already expressed his skepticism of the value of global development conferences, preferring instead to work toward results within countries.

At the time of publication, the World Bank had not responded to a question about whether it would be taking the staff association’s proposal into consideration.

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.