Jun 02 2009

Lip Service at the World Bank?

by at 11:58 am under Uncategorized

Hope and hype about the World Bank’s adaptability run high. Scholars and development practitioners preach the need for bank projects to adapt to local conditions, and the World Bank has published dozens of papers and books in recent years affirming that need. In Population and the World Bank (2000), a bank publication, an “action plan” stressed “effectiveness also requires adaptation to the increasing diversity and rapid changes in demographic and related social and economic conditions in countries.” Excellent – but is the World Bank following its own prescription? That is less clear.

I don’t believe the World Bank specifically strove for local social exclusion in previous decades. Rather, I give the institution the benefit of the doubt in arguing that it operated under a paternalistic attitude of “we know what’s best for you.” Now the bank is determined for inclusion; a worthy goal, but it is all too easy to fall into the traps Narayan describes of involving local institutions without taking power structures into account. Yes, it is bad to shut out local institutions – but it is equally dangerous to forget minority groups typically are not represented fairly within those institutions.

Putnam says strong civic engagement is key, and I agree. From the evidence he presents, it is clear that civic involvement helps create more effective governments with better feedback mechanisms, and more trust, responsibility and transparency. Soon, these characteristics are demanded and societies get what they expect. This makes me think of accountability from a nation’s leader. We anticipate that U.S. presidents will hold press conferences and be answerable to the public, but have no real power to demand the president appear regularly to answer questions. The British prime minister, however, regularly must appear before Parliament to answer questions, which are often very critical. U.S. presidents don’t do the same before Congress and likely never will – and we don’t demand it as a nation.

Putnam shows why a strong civic society is important, while Narayan argues that the World Bank is paying more attention to the social side of development. However, the World Bank is constrained in it efforts because of the strong emphasis given to hard results. Project administrators don’t want to hear “women in the rural area now are more comfortable speaking up in public meetings about their needs.” No, results demand we show in dollars or other measurable data how those women’s lives have improved because of a development initiative. This is unfortunate because if the World Bank must recognize a development continuum: incremental changes first allow for more inclusive civic involvement, which leads to adapting projects to local conditions, which results in more effective development.

The World Bank has spent a lot of time arguing for the need to adapt to local conditions, but its actions have not fully caught up to this thinking. The bank must work not only to include local institutions in its planning and projects, but to ensure minority groups have equal agency. The necessity of this cannot be overstated. It is progress to include local groups, but it is false, stunted progress not to take it a step further by recognizing local power structures and acting accordingly. I do believe people at the World Bank strive for best practices, and that purposeful exclusion is not occurring in the vast majority of projects. Tapping into local networks and understanding local power structures are not easy, but are essential if the World Bank is to live up to its own hype about adaptability.

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