Parliamentarians Flex Growing Organization, Make Request of Bank

24 February 2004

The chairman of an international group of parliamentarians has asked the World Bank to help assure a larger role for legislatures in setting the poverty-fighting strategies within their countries.

The request marks one of the first times the parliamentarians have proposed a significant and specific policy change, according to persons familiar with the group’s history. It appears to signal a growing desire by parliamentarians and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank for greater involvement by parliaments in decision-making. (The network web site is http://www.pnowb.org).

The specific request is for the Bank to tell governments that the Bank executive board will not approve Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers unless governments have them reviewed by their legislatures.

Dutch Parliamentarian Bert Koenders, the chairman of the PNoWB Board of Directors for three years, has made the proposal with PNoWB’s backing. The network recently concluded a Feb. 15-16 annual meeting in Paris, attended by a record number of 183 parliamentarians from 70 countries, and about 80 others – from the Bank, the International Monetary Fund, other banks and nongovernmental organizations.

Koenders Plans to Pursue Parliamentary Role in Process

"I made this request and I would like to pursue it," Koenders told freedominfo.org. "Present policies circumvent the decisionmaking process," Koenders commented.

Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers are documents laying out national poverty-fighting strategies which are supposed to be developed using a widely participatory process. Although parliamentarians may be involved individually in the preparation process, there is no requirement that the government get the approval of parliament for the strategy itself, although reforms proposed in the PRSP may need parliamentary approval later on. The PRSP document is considered a "country" document. The Bank makes a PRSP publicly available after its disclosure within the country and before the Bank board discusses it.

"Most countries don’t involve parliaments or parliamentarians very much, or only nominally," observed Mathieu Leferve, the full-time policy advisor for Paris-based PNoWB.

PNoWB Laying Groundwork for More Active Role

"I think this question of parliamentary review is a change for the board," Leferve observed.

The group’s ongoing operations — mainly education for parliamentarians in various forms — are funded by Finland and the Netherlands. PNoWB expects to operate on a budget of about 900,000 euros ($1.13 million) over three years. Lefevre, a former World Bank consultant with experience working at the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament, was hired recently as the organization’s first full-time non-Bank staff member. He and two part-time staffers, Jonathan Murphy and Anne Waiguru, operate out of the World Bank office in Paris, but are looking for a separate office.

The network is independent of the Bank, a French-registered non-profit as of 2003. It is run by a nine-member board, with representatives from Brazil, Romania, Italy, Lebanon, Finland, the Netherlands, Uganda, Cameroon, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Board members have met with the president the Bank once a year, and Bank President James Wolfensohn attended the annual meeting.

Chapters have been founded for India and East Africa to provide more regional focus, such as to study the preparation of Country Assistance Strategies in Kenya and India. A social issues committee was formed in 2002 on HIV/AIDS.

Variety of PNoWB Activities

PNoWB maintains a web site (http://www.pnowb.org) with a link from the World Bank site. The group puts out an occasional newsletter and a monthly e-mail alert. A year-old on-line question and answer web page for parliamentarians shows only a handful of postings. "It is not really being used that much yet," according to a Bank official.

One goal is to help parliamentarians understand development issues. PNoWB has prepared two-page "intelligence briefs" on two topics: trade and education, although they are not on the web site. It sponsors video conferences monthly on selected topics. Wolfensohn participated in one, hooked up with a small group of parliamentarians from four countries in North Africa and Bank country directors for those countries.

A program begun in mid-2003, known as "Parliamentarians’ Implementation Watch," aims at "promoting parliamentary action, mobilizing parliamentarians to take positive measures in Parliament," and to assess the work of the international financial institutions. Two pilot projects are under way; one in Kenya on governance, and one on education in Tanzania.

In addition, a "field visit" program takes groups of parliamentarians from diverse countries to observe the creation of poverty reduction programs in other countries – Ethiopia in January and Serbia-Montenegro in December. On these visits, parliamentarians meet with stakeholders to discuss the process; look at hospitals, schools and specific projects; and prepare a publicly available evaluation, with recommendations.

A summary of the latest one, the sixth since 2001, states, "The report finds that the participatory nature of the PRSP consultation process was, in itself, the most significant achievement so far but questions the strategies for implementation as well as the government’s decentralization policy."

There are other activities, but the organization has done little in the way of lobbying the Bank. Prior to the request regarding the PRSP process, PNoWB sent out a press release in December praising the new Swedish development policy, which states that all Swedish government policies should be focused on helping the poor and spurring development in poor countries.

PNoWB officials are hopeful that the World Bank will be receptive to the proposal on PRSPs, because the PRSP is a government-created policy and the document is government-owned. Greater involvement of parliamentarians in the PRSP process would also fit with the Bank/IMF mandate that PRSPs should be created with a great deal of input from civil society, PNoWB officials said. Their proposal, observed one, fits with "the spirit of the PRSP."

By Toby McIntosh

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In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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