IFI governance


A Tower of Babel on the Internet? The World Bank’s Development Gateway: Summary

18 June 2001

Preserve internet pluralism: contest the Development Gateway

On 1 July the World Bank plans to launch a major new internet initiative, the Development Gateway. This has multiple elements, but basically aims to be a supersite on all development issues. With almost unbelievable ambition, the Bank’s president, James Wolfensohn, has instructed his staff to create a site which contains links to material giving all perspectives on 130 development topics and aims to serve an audience of everyone interested in development.

The Gateway’s crazy editorial proposition could be summarised as “from the Adam Smith Institute to the Zapatistas: comprehensive development information for academics, ambassadors and activists”.

Some argue that such an initiative will collapse under its own weight, will be ignored by web surfers and so does not represent a major problem. But the Gateway will be heavily promoted (the Bank is hiring a public relations company) and will compete with existing sites in the development field. Unless people are made aware of its origins and approach, the site may appear independent of the Bank and to be a useful, neutral and well-connected web entry point.

A number of civil society groups have been following the Bank’s Gateway plans since details emerged just over a year ago. Many have fed in their comments and criticisms on the Bank’s plans. Groups in South Africa and Latin America which recently met Gateway staff have concluded that they will not cooperate with it.

Whilst some marginal changes have been made in response to criticism, the Bank is stubbornly refusing to engage with anyone who questions the Gateway’s basic logic and scope. The new briefing A Tower of Babel on the Internet? The World Bank’s Development Gateway sets out the key problems with the Gateway, drawing on comments from a number of civil society groups. It recommends that people who want to maintain diverse internet coverage on development issues should contest this World Bank scheme using on- and off-line tactics.

Ten major problems with the Development Gateway

  1. The Gateway’s Topic structure reflects an aim to organise development-related information in a way that is convenient for people who see the world through official development lenses, ignoring the fact that issues are perceived differently by different groups.
  2. Cross-cutting issues such as gender and climate change will lose their force and be ghettoised in the Bank’s approach.
  3. The Bank’s claim that its site will filter material on the basis of its ‘quality’ is very controversial. It is often hard for families, communities or single organisations to establish the boundaries of ‘quality’ analysis, let alone to establish this for everyone worldwide interested in development.
  4. The Bank plans to appoint individual or institutional “Topic Guides”, or site section editors. It is ignoring the fact that many people are not prepared to listen to “expert” individuals or institutions advising them what is good or bad to read and that neither the Bank nor many other international institutions are broadly trusted.
  5. Even if trusted guides could be found, they would struggle to keep up with all web postings in their topic area, which could amount to thousands of pages per week written in hundreds of languages. If the site ever became as interactive as the Bank hopes, this would add to Topic Guides’ burden and enable those with most time on the internet to push their opinions.
  6. The Bank wants to organise “Country Gateways” in all aid-recipient countries. This will give official backing to particular committees of government officials, private businesses and civil society groups without any clear criteria to analyse how well they represent broader opinion. It will also compete unfairly with existing country portals.
  7. If the Bank had been trying to empower organisations which find it hard to get their views across on the web, it would have emphasised non-English content as a high priority. Instead it has a draft language strategy which talks of localising international content into 65 languages. To aid machine translation it asks that site contributors avoid references to “country/locale-specific events” such as political or cultural events and do not use metaphors, irony or puns. Such limits to expression will again favour global development professionals over people working at the grassroots.
  8. The Bank says the Gateway will be independent. But organisations (like the Bank) which have contributed over $5million to the Gateway will get an automatic place on the Gateway Foundation Board. And the Board will only be established after the Gateway is launched and most key decisions have been taken.
  9. The Editorial Committee will also be appointed after the Gateway is launched, and will find it impossible to police thousands of decisions being taken across the Gateway site.
  10. The Bank’s approach to consultation has been to implement easy suggestions and ignore harder ones. It is trying to sell its concept to civil society groups rather than take action in response to problems and suggestions.

The Bretton Woods Project looks forward to collaborating with other groups on how to respond to the Gateway and on how to move forward with better ways to aggregate information among civil society groups.

Alex Wilks, Coordinator, Bretton Woods Project. April 2001

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