Major Bank Net Plans Under Fire

14 June 2000

The World Bank is planning to establish “the premier web entry point for information about poverty and sustainable development”. Whilst such an initiative has potential to boost civil society presence on the net, the Bretton Woods Project and others are concerned that this $60m plan would further strengthen the World Bank’s influence over development research. Brian Ashley, of the Alternative Information for Development Centre, South Africa commented: “We are very concerned about this supposed World Bank initiative. We feel that NGOs and the communities they serve will again be marginalized from access or input to knowledge.”

A Bank employee told the Bretton Woods Project that he feared the plans represented: “one man’s crusade to take over development on the internet:”. The material on the Bank’s planning site makes clear that: “The Bank’s work is considered to be an integral aspect of the Gateway and that the Gateway leaders are establishing a strategy to ensure that Bank work is leveraged to the fullest extent possible”.

Michael Potaschnik, the Bank task manager for the initiative says “the Bank is planning a “comprehensive consultation process”, but it is clear that plans are developing rapidly and that some in the Bank are trying to maintain tight control. Peter Armstrong, Director of OneWorld International, said they “potentially support more resources going into this area so long as it governed and co-branded in a way that builds on and supports the work others are doing.” The Bretton Woods Project is concerned that the Bank’s existing 150 websites and other initiatives set a poor precedent: often amounting to little more than promotion of the Bank and its favoured policies. Dr Simon McGrath, Centre for African Studies, Edinburgh who is studying the “knowledge Bank” said: “there is a tendency to mask the role of power, in a way typical of neo-liberal thinking … for knowledge partnerships to really work, power needs to be acknowledged, analysed and confronted”.

The Gateway plans to have five main components: an Aid Effectiveness Exchange, a Development Clearinghouse, Civil Society Forum, Private Sector Marketplace and Country Gateways. Oneworld International, which has suggested an alternative design, expressed fears that the civil society part might become a ghetto and that the “warehouse” proposal reflects “an inappropriate approach which sees knowledge as a product that can be stored and made available to people to solve their problems, rather than a process in which communities and networks of communities are the active participants. This is like 19th Century museum curators who saw culture as objects like the Elgin marbles that could be shipped to museums to enhance their reputation. It clearly makes more sense to leave things where they belong and create descriptions, maps etc to allow people to experience and understand them in situ.”

As well this overall design approach, the major questions raised by the Project and others on the Gateway are:

  • Is it over ambitious to set up an initiative providing so much information for so many interests?
  • Should civil society groups remain independent of the Gateway and continue to build up their existing web initiatives?
  • Could the Gateway really be established with the Bank as just one equal partner?
  • Will the Gateway’s corporate partners and sponsors have any veto power over what can be posted?
  • Who would select and manage the editors and writers to produce and maintain the Gateway?
  • What would be the balance of posting selected documents on the Gateway site or providing multiple links to other sites?
  • How much of the multi-million dollar budget would provide resources and training to boost the web presence of Southern civil society groups?

The Bretton Woods Project is keen to discuss with civil society groups how best to respond jointly to this initiative. The Bank’s consultations are taking place this summer, with a planned launch of the first phase of the Gateway in September.

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