World Bank questions ethics of World Summit report response

17 September 2002

The World Bank has been very active at the Johannesburg summit. It unveiled its World Development Report, an initiative to review genetically modified food, and gimmicks such as corny messages on recycled toilet paper for the 60,000 delegates.

The Bank’s public statements about the need to reduce agricultural subsidies, go beyond economic growth and consider asset redistribution led some observers to compare the Bank to an activist NGO. The Economist went further, questioning whether the World Bank has “turned Marxist”.

But for those in the Global Civil Society Forum there was still a very clear distinction between the World Bank, whose delegates mainly stayed in the official forum, and the assorted peace, anti-nuclear, landless movement and corporate regulation activists who marched and agitated for dramatic changes in the current world order.

At the launch of its new World Development Report (WDR) the Bank was angered by the distribution of a response publication with comments from academics and activists assembled by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Bretton Woods Project. Most of those present were keen to pick up a copy, but World Bank Communications Manager Sergio Jellineck confronted one of the publishers asking: “do you think it is ethical to distribute this at our launch?” Ironically, however, the Bank refused to reflect on the ethics of the production of its own report.

South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel spoke alongside the Bank report ‘s lead author at the WDR launch. He highlighted important missing issues such as the nature of multilateral institutions, the need for strong intermediaries between the rich and poor; consumption in rich countries; corporate excesses and the need for concrete guidelines to ensure technology transfer and decent job creation; and better understanding of national and international inequality. Others raised concerns about the report’s omissions of the informal sector and the impacts of HIV/AIDS.

Halifax Initiative and Friends of the Earth USA also released a report documenting the Bank’s failure to meet its obligations from the 1992 Earth summit. It argues that “in the decade since Rio, the World Bank has launched numerous initiatives. Despite these, little has changed at the Bank except, perhaps, its capacity to manage criticism. The Bank has failed to seriously address many of the problems identified in Rio, including the burden of external indebtedness, the social and environmental impacts of structural adjustment, the poverty of vulnerable groups, such as rural communities and women, and the need for sustainable livelihoods.”

The Bank’s response to questions in Johannesburg made it clear that a lot is still to be desired in terms of its interaction with civil society. A question on the dilution of World Bank safeguard policies (see p.8) was met with a response of “Well keep an eye on us!”. A Bolivian farmer who spoke in Spanish about his community’s struggle against water privatisation did not get a proper hearing. And Ndoume Nkotto from Cameroon warned: “you are talking to people who know something. Don’t talk to us like we haven’t been to school.”

Dynamic Development in a Sustainable World, World Bank, August 2002

Managing Sustainability World Bank-Style: An Evaluation of the World Development Report 2003, Heinrich Boell Foundation and Bretton Woods Project, August 2002

Marketing the Earth. The World Bank and Sustainable Development, Halifax Initiative and Friends of the Earth, August 2002

“Stand up for better sanitation”

“Private moment: global issue”

“Hygiene is not a soft issue”

“A flush is not the only winning hand”

Messages on World Bank sponsored toilet rolls for the use of delegates at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, 2002