A survey released by the World Bank in June gave the institution very low marks on poverty reduction and the environment and found that it is more “US-driven” than some years ago. The Bank press release of the survey, however, emphasised motherhood and apple pie findings such as that fighting poverty is key to achieving world peace. It also emphasised that: “overall, opinion leaders in developing countries are clear that the World Bank’s influence on their country is generally positive, and many say the Bank has become more useful, relevant, transparent, responsive, visible and better at communicating.” Whilst the survey itself also tries to put a positive spin on its findings, it cannot conceal some major criticisms.
The report was prepared for the Bank by Princeton Survey Research Associates and its sub-contractors based on interviews with 2,600 ‘opinion-formers’ in 48 countries. These are individuals with high-level positions in government, media, civil society organizations, academia, the private sector and labour unions with some knowledge of the Bank’s activities.
Among its key findings are that:
- just 22 per cent of respondents say the Bank is doing a good job on reducing poverty;
- more respondents say the Bank is doing poor than a good job on environmental sustainability;
- less than half the ‘opinion leaders’ in Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa say the Bank places a high priority on poverty reduction in their country;
- the finding that the Bank forces its agenda on developing countries, is “consistent and overwhelming in all regions and in virtually all countries”, including “large majorities of eight in 10 or more in countries as diverse as Thailand, Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria and Britain;
- many say the World Bank is more “US-driven” today than several years ago.
Overall, a slim majority of those interviewed are either “enthusiasts” or “moderates” about the Bank. About a quarter are said to be “conflicted”, whilst one in ten are outright critics. A majority of opinion leaders believe the World Bank has a good influence on the way things are going in their country. But roughly two in 10 say the Bank has a bad influence on their country. A third of opinion leaders in South Asia and sizable minorities in other regions say the Bank has become more arrogant over the last few years.
When asked an open question about the Bank’s greatest weakness, people most often cited its organizational culture -inefficient bureaucracy, arrogance and lack of transparency and collaboration. Opinion leaders also criticize the Bank for its economic policies, its traditional approach to development and simplified solutions, for not taking into account local conditions, for not doing enough to help developing countries and for being too heavily influenced by the US and the West.
Inequality and negative economic reforms
Opinion leaders around the world generally agree that the gap between rich and poor people and between rich and poor countries has widened over the last few years. Solid majorities of the opinion leaders surveyed say the likelihood of cutting poverty by half by 2015 is slim. Large majorities believe that most foreign assistance is wasted due to corruption. A solid majority say that debt relief is more effective than traditional forms of assistance.
Respondents in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia were most critical of the Bank’s influence on their countries. People in Nigeria, Senegal, Pakistan and Mexico had the strongest anti-Bank views. More than half of those surveyed in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan said the Bank often acts irresponsibly. Half the respondents in Indonesia and Thailand and six in 10 opinion leaders in the Philippines say the Bank’s reforms hurt more people than they help. In Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa slim majorities say the Bank’s economic reforms are more of a minus than a plus. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa a six in 10 majority sides with the negative impact of the Bank’s economic reforms. In the Middle East and North Africa, majorities in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen and about half in Morocco say the Bank’s reforms hurt more than help.
In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa sizable minorities think the Bank’s policies and programs are contributing to the growing wealth gap. In China and Vietnam, by contrast, half the respondents credit the work of the Bank for lessening the gap between the rich and poor. Solid majorities in most industrial countries and all countries surveyed in Europe and Central Asia and majorities in three East Asian countries argue that the Bank does not act irresponsibly in its development efforts.
What should the Bank do?
There are wide variations in what people urge the Bank to focus on. For example more than a third in Cambodia say improving education should be the Bank’s main objective, but virtually no one in China mentions education. Similarly, a third in Vietnam say the Bank should focus on infrastructure, but only a handful in Thailand agree. In Brazil a quarter of opinion leaders say the Bank’s objective should be to share knowledge and give advice, whereas just a few mention the ‘knowledge Bank’ in Mexico.
People clearly expect the Bank to match its skill set to the specific needs of each country. Majorities in all regions say the Bank is currently doing an average or good job helping their country reduce poverty, although many more say the Bank is doing an average job than a good one. In three regions-Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia-four in 10 or more say the Bank is currently doing a poor job helping their country reduce poverty
Less than half of the opinion leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa say the Bank places a high priority on poverty reduction in their country. Slightly less than half in every region, except Sub-Saharan Africa which is slightly higher, say the Bank has been doing a better job over the last few years helping their country build a climate for investment, growth and job creation.
Majorities say the Bank is doing a better job than a few years ago on fostering environmental sustainability. Half or more in Latin America, East Asia and Europe and Central Asia say the Bank gives high priority to ensuring that development occurs in an environmentally sound manner. In South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, roughly a quarter say the Bank gives low priority to fostering sustainable development in their country. Overall fewer people think the Bank is doing a good job on environmental sustainability than in 1998 when the Bank ran a similar poll.
Respondents say there has been no change in the effectiveness of the Bank in fighting corruption. However, a large majority say the Bank is currently doing a poor job helping their country reduce corruption. Nearly all said the Bank is an excellent source of research, analysis, and knowledge.
The full survey makes interesting reading and poses challenges for both the Bank and its critics. But there are some questions about the accuracy and impartiality of this poll. Firstly are “individuals with high-level positions in government, media, civil society organizations, academia, the private sector and labor unions with some knowledge of the World Bank’s activities” representative of or in touch with poorer people directly? In some cases potentially contradictory findings were resolved in favour of the Bank. And the poll authors editorialise unecessarily, for example saying “criticisms of the Bank-that it acts irresponsibly or that its reforms hurt more people than they help-do not necessarily contradict the assessment that the Bank’s overall influence is positive. It would be a mistake to assume that these criticisms tip the balance of opinion against the Bank overall. They do not”.