Meeting: ‘milestone’ or ‘millstone’ for Bank/civil society relations?

17 November 2003

A new civil society/World Bank process was initiated at the end of October. Involving a range of well-known international NGOs, this was hailed by the Bank as a “high-level meeting which marked another important milestone in the Bank’s relations with civil society”. However Bretton Woods Project, Development GAP and other groups questioned whether the initiative would mis-represent or undermine the campaigns of other civil society groups.

Critics of the process expressed fears that the meeting would provide a gift to the Bank’s public relations team ahead of the Bank’s 60th anniversary next year, when mass protests are expected. This fear rapidly became reality. Just two days after the Bank came under fire for approving the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Bank splashed an announcement of the meeting in its press review and at the top of its homepage.

This trumpeted: “The Joint Facilitation Committee (JFC) seeks to create a strategic forum for dialogue at the global level – bringing together senior Bank managers and staff with leaders of 14 civil society networks.” Whilst the Bank’s statement included a brief disclaimer that “representatives at the meeting did not represent all the world’s civil society organizations”, it said “their presence was meant to reflect the diversity of those groups and to provide critical perspectives”. “We’re on the right track,” World Bank External Affairs Vice President Ian Goldin said of the meeting. “Civil society is an essential partner in tackling the global development challenges ahead.”

The paper is written from what could be considered a cooptation perspective

ActionAid, one of the global NGOs invited to participate in the meeting, pulled out a few days before, citing concerns about the “the JFC’s departure from its original purpose”. ActionAid also voiced “alarm” about the fact that the proposed World Bank/JFC joint workplan focussed on procedures rather than the Bank’s analytical framework and ground-level impacts. One of the other organisations selected for the JFC also did not attend the high-level meeting with the Bank. Bruce Jenkins, Policy Director of Bank Information Center, attended the JFC meeting as an observer. He commented: “I was struck by the high degree of Bank representation (7 Vice-Presidents and, at times, President Wolfensohn) and the low level of civil society preparation. The JFC civil society groups had not yet reached a consensus on their core objectives, with quite differing interests and perspectives among them. It remains unclear whether the JFC groups are poised to press the opportunities for strengthening civil society voice and power in Bank operations while fending off dangers of cooptation.”

A plan by some JFC participants to take on three of the biggest substantive issues – trade liberalisation, privatisation and infrastructure – was withdrawn. But there is still the intention to conduct a joint assessment of what has worked so far and what has not in Bank-civil society relations and to strengthen advocacy capacity for civil society organisations (CSOs) on the World Bank and national governments. A series of policy dialogues will also focus on contested development issues as well as areas of common interest.

The production of a JFC paper on Bank/CSO relations (mentioned in Update 36) has been postponed. But the JFC and World Bank have finally agreed to release for consultation a paper that the Bank drafted in June on the same topic. This was described by one of the JFC participants as “an insightful analysis of the development of CSO-World Bank relations, but not surprisingly written from what could be considered a ‘cooptation’ perspective.”

JFC participants have announced an intention to involve additional civil society networks going forward. But the JFC initiative looks like the reformation of the NGO World Bank Working Group (NGOWG), an initiative which was disbanded two years ago as past its sell-by date. The NGOWG, established in the early 1980s, also held global annual meetings with the Bank and suffered from poor representativity and connection with on-the-ground campaigning. Bretton Woods Project, in a memo to the groups warned of “history repeating itself”. Whatever the promises, any institutionalised forum of large NGOs and the Bank will be in danger of resulting in photo opportunities and lowest common denominator generalities rather than empowerment of groups on the ground.

Civil society organisations represented at 28 October JFC meeting with the World Bank

  • International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) Global Unions Office
  • Oxfam International
  • Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS)
  • Association for Woman’s Rights in Development (AWID)
  • InterAction
  • Transparency International
  • Global Movement for Children
  • Amnesty International
  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
  • Caribbean Policy Development Centre
  • World YWCA
  • ECA NGO Working Group
  • World Vision
  • World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)