Bank pilot in Bolivia fails to create “clear, structured space” for CSOs

14 June 2000 | Briefings

by Caroline Hartnell*

‘It’s like you’re walking down the street and someone you know asks you to go along for a ride. You don’t know what’s going on but you might as well go if you’ve got nothing better to do.’

This is how one Bolivian NGO worker described the involvement of Bolivian civil society in the World Bank’s pilot of its Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF) in Bolivia. It reflects both scepticism and a complete lack of involvement: NGOs are mere passengers, they have no say about where the car is going.

How did this state of affairs come about? And are the prospects for the CDF really as bleak as this might suggest?

What is the CDF?

The CDF discussion paper issued by Bank President Jim Wolfensohn in January (see Alliance Vol 4 No 1) calls for an all-inclusive development strategy for each borrowing country involving the government, the entire donor community active within the particular country, civil society and the private sector. The aim would be to ensure coordinated responses by donors and creditors to development priorities identified by borrowing governments and their citizens. Each country CDF would be presented in the form of a matrix, with the figures on the ‘structural, social and human aspects’ of development forming the horizontal axis and the different players in development forming the vertical axis.

A laudable idea

Everyone everywhere seems to agree that the CDF is basically a good idea. As ActionAid Chief Executive Salil Shetty puts it, ‘It is potentially useful if it can create greater national ownership of country action plans and a coordinated donor response – these are things we’ve been arguing for ages. We should try to exploit it to the maximum. But now it’s just a piece of paper.’ Or, as one USAID staff member termed it, ‘the beginning of a conversation’.

Ken Bluestone of the UK-based CIIR (Catholic Institute for International Relations) praises the CDF for the potential it has to give civil society organizations (CSOs) a clear part in filling out the matrix and establishing the country plan – what he calls a ‘clear, structured space’. But what has emerged from the Bolivian pilot falls far short of this.

The Bolivian National Dialogue

The Bolivian National Dialogue was carried out by the new Bolivian government in 1997, long before the CDF first saw the light of day. As a result of this exercise a Bolivian ‘matrix’ for development was produced, with four pillars: Opportunity, Equity, Institutionality and Dignity.

But the involvement of Bolivian CSOs in the National Dialogue was far from ideal: the whole exercise lasted only 15-20 days; only two NGO networks were consulted, and they were not given access to information to help them prepare their input. Nor was there any follow-up: what followed was 18 months of consultation between the Bolivian government and donor countries in which CSOs played no part.

Despite the shortcomings of the consultation process, and the fact that the Bolivian matrix contained one key pillar, Dignity, that was of no interest to the Bank, the Bank clearly saw the Bolivian government matrix as representing more or less what it wanted. It had resulted in a consensus that poverty alleviation should be the overarching objective of the national action plan and that it should be approached in a holistic manner, through partnerships. Adopting the National Dialogue as a model would give the CDF a quick start.

It might, however, have been better for the Bank to have viewed it as a lesson rather than a model.

Bank consults Bolivian CSOs

The CDF consultation process so far bears all the signs of too much haste and too little thought. The first Bolivian CSOs heard of the CDF was in February this year. Invitations to attend a meeting in La Paz on 11 February were dated 4 February, giving organizations no time to prepare for the meeting, no time to consult with their constituencies. World Bank policy-makers are undoubtedly well used to reading the papers for important meetings on aeroplanes a day or two before, but this way of working does not fit with CSOs. Only La Paz-based organizations and networks were invited. Although the CDF itself was translated into Spanish, all other papers for the meeting were in English.

At a subsequent meeting in Washington on 26 March, Bank staff accepted the validity of these criticisms. It has now been agreed that papers will be translated into Spanish (although not indigenous languages), and accepted that CSOs invited to local consultative meetings must be given time to prepare and consult beforehand.

The rejection by the Bank of the Dignity pillar of the Bolivian action plan is a reflection that the Bank doesn’t lend money in this area – largely ‘alternative development’ for coca-growing areas. But it also calls into question the genuineness of the Bank’s intention to allow country governments and stakeholders to set out what is best for their country.

Another problem seems to be that the World Bank is still very much feeling its way. Bank staff themselves seem unclear whether the Bank wants the CDF to be a diagnostic tool (mapping out what is needed and what is being done in a given country) or a strategic tool (helping identify what should be done and who should do it) – although this is to some an extent an artificial distinction, for greater knowledge about what others are doing is likely to lead to increased cooperation.

What next?

The 11 February meeting in La Paz established three working groups, in which NGOs, the Bank and the Bolivian government would discuss plans, but it is not clear exactly how these meetings will contribute to the CDF action plan.

The next formal step is the Annual Consultative Group (ACG) meeting in Paris on 24-25 June (ACG meetings involve recipient and donor countries discussing plans for the future). Here the Bolivian government will present its action plan, including the Dignity pillar, to donor countries. Discussions between the Bolivian government and the embassy staff of donor countries have been going on over the past year. CSOs could in theory have been involved, but the Bolivian government is clearly very reticent about including CSOs in this process. Even participating officials have expressed fears that this wouldn’t allow for transparency between governments.

Beyond Bolivia

These problems do not relate only to Bolivia. In News and Notices, the newsletter of Globalization Challenge Initiative, Nancy Alexander refers to ‘conditionality’ as a possible ‘fatal flaw of the CDF‘:

‘In private meetings, IMF staff express doubts about the CDF proposal, saying that it assumes that “populations in developing countries know what’s good for them.” We wonder whether the IMF and other creditors and donors are prepared to strengthen their accountability to developing country constituencies and “bottom-up” decision-making processes. If so, would the institutions refrain from “top-down” decision-making, e.g. imposing loan conditionality?’

Other expressed concerns include the following:

  1. A matrix with predetermined categories – and presenting social and human data separately from macroeconomic data – may prove inflexible, inhibiting the planning process, reinforcing a tendency towards sectoral rather than holistic planning, and allowing little space for alternative approaches or regional problems.
  2. There is a danger that the process will be too donor-driven, with especially the larger donors such as the Bank itself dominating the agenda.


CDF will also be piloted in Cote d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jordan (possibly), the Kyrgyz Republic, Morocco, Romania, Uganda, Vietnam, and West Bank and Gaza.

A briefing on how the CDF is being applied in the pilot countries is available from the Bretton Woods Project.

The full text of this article first appeared in Alliance magazine, Charities Aid Foundation, Vol. 4, No. 2, 6/99, UK.