World Bank to 'massively scale up' leverage on private sector through technology

A scene during the World Bank-International Monetary Fund spring meetings in 2012. The international financing institution's new initiative aims to harness the power of the latest technologies to promote development impacts. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the goals of the Open Government Partnership is to increase corporate accountability — but private firms need to be (more) involved.

That’s why at the annual summit last week in London, African business leader and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim complained about the absence of business people from the discussions.

“Business has a stake in open government,” said Ibrahim. “Business is coming under extreme pressure from civil society now to clean up their act. It’s time for business to show us they are good citizens.”

Indeed, as aid budgets continue to dwindle and struggle to achieve poverty reduction, a key area of focus for the World Bank is finding new ways to mobilize the energies and capital already existing in the markets for development.

“When we talk about aid we always think about multilateral agencies or bi-lateral agencies trying to deliver aid somewhere but there is a lot of money in the market in the private sector,” Benjamin Herzberg, the bank’s head of private sector engagement for good governance, told Devex. “The question is, how do we leverage the private sector to do development?”

New scheme to engage the private sector in development

Over the years, the International Financing Corp., the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, has worked with companies by providing investment as well as offering advice on how to implement projects which have an impact on sustainability, governance and the social environment around firms, improving their bottom line at the same time.

The Washington, D.C.-based institution on Friday shared details of a new initiative through which it hopes to “massively scale [up]” practices that deliver shared value  economic growth and equity.

Within a the next years, the World Bank aims to change the behavior of 1 percent of about 300 million private companies worldwide. The spending power of this selection of firms could leverage up to $3 billion to promote development impacts.

The new Open Private Sector platform thus harnesses the power of the latest technologies to provide companies with the tools that can ease the adaption of these desired behaviors.

As showcased in London, OPS is a suite of IT and data-based tools and services that, according to the bank, can “aggregate, complement, and leverage existing and new programs and services, all tending to promote business adoption of development-prone behaviors.”

Tools for feedback gathering

Providing companies with the tools to gather feedback is an integral part of the platform, as while companies have been fairly good at using technology to get feedback from their own customers, they have been less successful in gathering experiences from the communities where they operate.

To address this need, OPS offers an innovative Beneficiary Feedback App Store developed by Keystone Accountability. Other core platform components include Open Corporate Data, Open Supply Chain, Open Contracting and Public-Private Dialogue.

As an organization concerned with accountability for social change, Keystone Accountability’s mission is to enable firms to cultivate more voice from the people they serve through deeper engagement and authentic conversations. They have worked in the past with big players like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Grassroots Business Fund and Oxfam to develop better ways of planning, measuring and reporting social change.

“The way we see ourselves having an impact and reaching all organization — and not just the few that we can actually help through these services  [is] through things like the app store, where we can be an aggregator and honest broker of others who are providing these services and to try to guide that process and create a conversation around quality,” Keystone Accountability CEO David Bonbright told Devex.

The app store will serve as a searchable online catalog of tools and services that enable the private sector to easily access beneficiary feedback. One of its key features is the scope for client review of the apps, a user-based quality system that is built into the platform.

The design is inspired, in part, by the business practices of the customer satisfaction industry that enables companies to listen and respond effectively and profitably to their customers.

Listening to the community

Social Impact Lab developed two of the apps featured in OPS: FrontlineSMS and FrontlineCloud. Both are already used globally by thousands of organizations to reach their communities via SMS, which reaches more people in more places than any other digital technology in the world.

“The [app store] is an exciting effort to help map the space of technology and service providers that are helping create responsive communication ecosystems, often in difficult contexts,” SIMLab CEO Sean McDonald told Devex.

This is important, according to World Bank governance specialist Robert R. Hunja, because companies “sometimes forget that, in the communities where they operate, they are also citizens of those communities.”

“What we are trying to do is to help companies go beyond just listening to the people who buy or purchase from them as direct customers but to also listen to listen to citizens and members of the community in which they are living and making money,” Hunja said in an interview. But at a moment of tight profit margins and cost-cutting in the private sector, the bank is aware of the risk that, even in the best-case scenario of high business engagement through OPS, it may become a very technical process or even a superficial box-ticking exercise.

Hunja explained they are working to convince companies and communities that the platform is of importance to both.

“The community benefits by these people acting better and the private companies benefit by learning better what communities actually can benefit from what they do. So we are hoping to have a value proposition that really gets both sides to understand that this of usefulness and real value to them.”

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Zoe smith profile

    Zoe Smith

    Zoe Smith is a Devex correspondent based in London, where she works as a journalist and communications consultant. Over more than 15 years, Zoe has written for publications including New Internationalist, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She established Full Fact, a U.K. nonprofit, in 2010 and continues to provide strategic digital communications advice to the nonprofit sector. Zoe holds a master’s of science in violence, conflict and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies.