It has often seemed crazy that a tiny UK-based NGO should try to monitor and influence two giant global institutions. The Bretton Woods Project has never been a David versus Goliath operation, however, but an effort to help coordinate and inform many civil society Lilliputians to tie down two tall Gullivers. How well have the Lilliputians done in preventing the giants causing damage across the south?
There have been many gains in terms of increasing transparency, raising awareness and creating public debate. Many national and international processes have considered the impacts of Bank and Fund activities and suggested changes to what they do. Some of these suggestions have been adopted, in part or in full. Many, however, have proved to be little more than face-lifts for the giants, with their thinking and main actions remaining as they were.
Those of us working in northern capital cities often need to be reminded by our southern colleagues that we should not be taken in by announcements featured on websites, or fine presidential speeches at annual meetings. The reality in the vast majority of southern countries is that poverty and environmental problems are worsening and that citizens and governments feel powerless to shape their destinies.
The World Bank and IMF are still playing multiple roles of researching, proposing and financing projects and policy reforms. Some of the advice and projects may well be sensible in theory, but they are often proposed and delivered in a manner which alienates people on the ground rather than wins them over, making them inoperable in practice.
The institutions have been forced to recognise some of the short-comings of the traditional Washington Consensus and have developed new lines of work on issues such as corruption, disability and inter-faith dialogue. Combined with the vast range of other initiatives that Wolfensohn initiated, this can mean that the institutions play an influencing role across an increased range of southern institutions and policy areas. There is little logic to many of these themes being handled primarily by the IFIs. And the institutions certainly still find it hard to collaborate rather than dominate.
A major question at the moment is what will happen to the Bank under Wolfowitz. Could it be that those of us who contested the nomination process and outcome will be found to have cried wolf for nothing? I doubt it. Much more likely is a dismantling of the more progressive elements in the institutions, and an increasing conformity to US foreign policy. However the Bank staff machinery has in the past often resisted changes announced by their president (including many Wolfensohn ones). And any changes will be done under a smokescreen of PR activities and announcements. Wolfowitz seems keen to make statements on almost everything that is in the public eye – from the death of King Fahd, to hurricane Katrina. And he has not been shy to find photo opportunities with African choirs and similar photogenic groups.
So if Wolf II is part of a Bush II plan to get his people into multilateral institutions to dismantle them from inside, the Bank president is going about it in a much more sheepish and subtle manner than John Bolton, who has rapidly caused major upheaval at the UN.
There is some turbulence among civil society groups, however, on how to treat the new president. Some reacted with glee to the appointment, arguing that things need to get worse and more visible before they can get better. But even those who do not follow this logic are discussing whether the multitude of Bank consultations and dialogues make much difference or whether civil society is strongest when it develops clear independent positions and organises outside official processes.
The Bretton Woods Project, with its broad church convening power, insider contacts and wide-ranging overview of IFI activities, clearly has a major role to play in keeping people up to date and shaping thinking and actions on what roles the IFIs should play and how they can be persuaded to do so. It has a more vital role now than ever to stop the giants erupting out of their restraints and causing further damage.