Official report critiques Bank poverty strategy

15 September 1998

A new report, commissioned by the Government of Norway, reveals that the World Bank has a long way to go in clarifying and operationalising its poverty reduction objectives. The study finds that the Bank has become the main data source on poverty in Africa and has done more than other agencies to develop poverty reduction policies, but its work has serious limitations.

The Christian Michelsen Institute, which wrote the report, concluded that “the Bank pays scant attention to inequalities and distribution of assets as constraints on growth and poverty reduction”. This includes material, gender and political inequality, and whether poor groups can influence public policy. Bank Country Assistance Strategies suffer from lack of attention to regional politics, debt, and world trade trends.

The report finds that “linkages between macroeconomic policy interventions and poverty remain weak”, and notes that:

“at the level of development theory the World Bank has maintained a remarkably constant approach to poverty reduction over its 50-year history. Its assumption has always been to view development and poverty reduction as fundamentally an issue of economic growth”. Three countries were examined in depth: Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their adjustment operations include “pro-poor” components and calls for increased social spending but “the design and implementation of the economic liberalisation package has at best had a limited impact on current poverty – and at worst contributed to an increase in poverty”.

Discussions on development options have been somewhat opened up, but this “is still largely a one way dialogue” and should be further strengthened as

“there is a widespread perception that whatever is said locally and emerges out of the consultations disappears once the World Bank teams return to heaquarters and the project documents and recommendations get streamlined in internal Bank processing”.

The Bank suffers from image and legitimacy problems in Africa, which makes it hard to build trust. This, it is argued, stems from:

“the unpopular adjustment operations, the distinct ideological edge to its pronouncements, and perceived arrogance.”

The report recommends that the Bank’s new network structure established to deal with cross-cutting issues such as poverty, gender and the environment should be supplemented with other control mechanisms and that Norway should continue to ask critical questions and press to maintain poverty focus among competing objectives.

The World Bank and Poverty Reduction in Africa, Evaluation Report 7.98, is available free of charge from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fax (+47) 22 24 27 51,