Challenges to World Bank report on MDG progress

5 April 2004

The World Bank has produced its first report on countries’ progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While few disagree with the aims of the goals, a number of groups are concerned that the Bank is not the appropriate agency to be undertaking such a review. This is because the goals are primarily a UN creation and because the World Bank suffers a major conflict of interests in producing reports about the policies of countries where it is itself deeply involved in policy-making. This problem is at its clearest in the third section of the Bank’s report which focuses on the policy performance of the international financial institutions themselves.

In theory there is an agreed division of labour. The UN is the scorekeeper on MDG outcome statistics, ie the numbers of children in primary schools. The World Bank is concentrating on the policy and institutional framework to achieve the MDGs. But the World Bank and key donor governments are aware that the most important ground to occupy is the commanding heights of interpretation and blame allocation. That the blame game is starting ahead of the 2005 deadline for preliminary assessment of MDG progress is clear from comments by many NGOs and officials. Senior UN official Richard Jolly said last year: “pursuit of the MDGs could well be undermined in the future, as it has been in the past, if there is no change in structural adjustment policies.” Many NGOs and academic researchers argue precisely that very little has changed in key macroeconomic adjustment policies.

The Bank’s new report is divided into three sections. The first looks at developing countries, the second at developed countries and the third at the performance of international financial institutions. The section on the South is based almost entirely on the controversial Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA) exercise; a scorecard that the Bank produces annually for all low-income countries where it lends. The CPIA is controversial because it is non-transparent and because the judgements made to compare countries are subjective and not informed by wide debate. Last April the Development Committee recognised the problems with the CPIA, urging “the Bank, working in a participatory manner, to continue to improve the CPIA methodology and the transparency of its application”.

it's ridiculous that the Bank should play such a far-reaching role in assessment of the MDGs

Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister who chairs the Development Committee, noted last April that “Ministers urged that the assessments included in the global monitoring reports be based on transparent criteria that would facilitate objective and impartial judgments, with several calling for the active participation of developing countries in the further work to be done on refining the CPIA methodology and application”. There have been some meetings on this, but no major breakthroughs in changing the approach.

The section on developed countries focuses in particular on trade and aid. It presents assessments of the impact on poorer countries of richer countries’ trade regimes. It also produces a new measure of the quality of aid, based largely on whether it is targeted at the poorest countries.

The section on international financial institutions summarises some of the figures produced by the IFIs themselves on development impact and effectiveness. It is understood that some other IFIs also queried the Bank’s role in pulling together these statistics and deciding on the analytical framework to be adopted.

The Development Committee last year called on the Bank and Fund to work closely with other international agencies “using institutional mandates to guide the division of responsibilities for monitoring work”. It is understood that some key donor governments are using the self-reinforcing argument that the UN lacks the capacity to produce annual reports on policies towards the MDGs, so it has to be the Bank which does them. Ministers on the Development Committee will, however, have an opportunity to revisit appropriate division of labour for the future when it discusses this first MDG report at the spring meetings.

Mike Rowson, director of MEDACT, a health NGO said: “it’s ridiculous that the Bank should play such a far-reaching role in assessment of the MDGs. One of the aims of the Global Health Watch and other civil society initiatives is to open some policy discussion around alternatives. Putting the Bank in charge of assessing progress towards the MDGs simply strengthens their position – what we need is more perspectives and more debate about whether the Bank’s policies are right”.