Inspection Panel Case Plants Seeds of Cultural Change at World Bank

14 January 2010

A complaint brought by a Yemeni organization to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel has produced some positive and unexpected results: a much delayed translation of a key program document that had sparked the original complaint, and an ambitious action plan, drawn up by the Bank’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) management, which aims to further develop the Bank’s relationship with civil society in the region. Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait a few more months before hearing the Inspection Panel’s final recommendation on whether to investigate further into the case or not.

In April 2009, the Inspection Panel received its first ever case from the MENA region, when the Yemen Observatory for Human Rights (YOHR) filed a seemingly simple complaint. YOHR claimed that the Bank office in Sana’a had repeatedly refused to translate into Arabic a major program document: the Institutional Reform Development Policy Grant (IRDPG) for Yemen, approved by the Bank’s Board of Directors in December 2007.

YOHR laid out the implications of such a denial, including the fact that the Bank had not been transparent; had violated the principle of partnership; and that civil society did not have access to the necessary information with sufficient time to provide recommendations to the Bank and government about how to improve the program’s design. In this final point, YOHR questioned the economic strategy of the IRDPG, arguing that it might actually have the undesired outcome of increasing poverty and unemployment levels in Yemen. The Inspection Panel’s Eligibility Report broke the complaint down into three concerns: that of translation and transparency, of partnership and participation, and of the impacts of the reform supported by the IRDPG.

The complaint turned out to be very timely since April 2009 was also the height of the Bank’s review of its policy on the disclosure of information. As a result of this case, the issue of translation was placed on the agenda of the policy review and was repeatedly mentioned as a key issue that deserved to be addressed in the new disclosure policy. While the final draft of the policy does not contain any new and binding language on the matter of translation, it does recognize that there will likely be an increase in demand for document translation and, consequently, commits to assessing whether changes will need to be made to the Bank’s existing (and, for the most part, non-binding) Translation Framework in order for it to meet the objectives of the new disclosure policy.  This assessment would take place within the first half of 2010. This is not a commitment to review the Translation Framework, nor is it a commitment for a binding policy on document translation, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

The second component of the complaint—that of partnership and participation—didn’t touch on any of the Bank’s traditional social or environmental safeguards as many Panel cases do. Instead it reflected a matter which is not easily remedied through policies and safeguards; that is, the institutional culture of the Bank.

On the surface, it appears that the Bank has made strides since the days of the 1970s and 1980s Structural Adjustment Programs, during which a series of seriously flawed economic programs was imposed upon a large portion of the developing world by the leading international financial institutions. Though some might argue that these programs are still being funded, but under new names such as Development Policy Loans or Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the Bank has indeed made efforts to engage country governments, the private sector, and civil society.

When we investigate further though, we find that while there might be a discourse on engaging civil society at the Bank, and while some programs may even require consultations with civil society, there hasn’t actually been nearly enough change when it comes to the Bank’s institutional culture. In fact, practically speaking, it seems that the rationale of many of the Bank’s 10,000 employees to engage communities is simply to fulfill a protocol requirement. This negates any of the potential benefits of community engagement.

Community engagement is necessary not only for the sake of transparency or rights, but also because it can improve development outcomes. It provides a forum to incorporate the input of project-affected peoples, who know their needs better than any international agency, and who can therefore help to design projects with maximum positive impact on their communities. Not accepting or understanding this rationale allows Bank staff to withhold information from the public, even when it doesn’t harm anyone to provide the information; to conduct half-hearted consultations; and to work with an attitude of “we know best.”  Of course, resource allocation also plays a big role in all this, but it is the lack of importance placed upon engagement with civil society that leads to the resource problem in the first place! There are definitely exceptions, but overall, this is the dominant culture that prevails. It is this culture which prevented YOHR from accessing information in Arabic, and it is the same culture which allowed Bank staff to hold inadequate consultations for the IRDPG.

As a result of YOHR’s complaint, the Bank’s MENA management quickly produced the Arabic translation (presumably the pressure of the case allowed for the freeing up of resources), sent it to YOHR, and made it publicly available on the website. More significantly though, this case made it necessary for MENA management to address the cultural issue and they did so by drawing up an Enhanced Action Plan. These developments occurred even before the Inspection Panel had a chance to submit its recommendations to the Board of Directors on whether or not to investigate into the Yemeni case, as is standard procedure. Management has asked that the Panel delay its recommendation until after the implementation of this new action plan is well underway (June 2010).

This action plan commits MENA staff to:

  • Monitor and ensure the timely disclosure of Project/Program Information Documents (PIDs), Project Appraisal Documents (PADs), and Program Documents (PDs);
  • Translate all of the above mentioned documents into Arabic;
  • Revamp the Bank’s Arabic websites;
  • Develop a directory of civil society organizations (CSOs) for each of the MENA country offices;
  • Strengthen outreach to relevant stakeholders;
  • Raise awareness and disseminate good practices among MENA staff across the region on consultations;
  • Actively educate stakeholders about World Bank programs and their potential benefits (potential harms are not mentioned, however, this is something to work on with MENA management);

And with respect to Yemen specifically, MENA management commits to:

  • Regularly meeting with CSOs to discuss the progress and concerns related to the IRDPG
  • Holding quarterly meetings with a cross-section of civil society; and
  • Emphasizing with the Yemeni government the importance of consultations with all stakeholders.

While this action plan is not binding, it is as close as anything gets to a framework on engaging civil society, which the Bank currently does not have, and if implemented successfully, has the potential to be a model for engagement and partnership with civil society.

Of the three elements of YOHR’s complaint then, MENA management addressed the translation concern, as well as that of partnership and participation. The third element, which challenges the design of the program, is far more difficult for the Bank to address since the program is heavily built on an economic ideology of supply side economics and the trickle-down theory. Ultimately, both MENA management and YOHR want to reduce poverty, but they employ different strategies for achieving that goal. Management should not think of this as a barrier to engagement though; rather Bank staff ought to consider the contexts and experiences that have led to the different economic perspectives and value the fact that local CSOs are likely to have a much greater understanding about their individual countries’ contexts, their development needs, and the potential barriers to that development. Let us hope that MENA’s Enhanced Action Plan is implemented effectively and that it becomes a framework for staff to accept and adopt these ideas in a genuine way. If successful, this plan has the potential to become the best practice model for Bank Management from the other regions to follow.

By Nadia Daar

* Nadia Daar is with the Bank Information Center’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

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ABOUT IFTI WATCH

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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