World Bank and civil society engagement: a new direction?

13 June 2005 | Guest comment

Growing civil society pressure for better performing international financial institutions (IFIs) has left the Bretton Woods institutions with little choice but to acknowledge the existence of civil society organisations (CSOs). Increasing efforts have since been made to consult with CSOs especially during the Wolfensohn era which has been viewed as the most accommodating of CSOs. Although this has not yielded much in terms of actual impact, it has been a step in the right direction for CSO struggles. What remains to be seen is whether this will be maintained during the term of new president Paul Wolfowitz.

Engaging with CSOs has meant huge public relations exercises for IFIs and especially the World Bank, including setting up a civil society department responsible for arranging various CSO-Bank meetings. The latest effort was the World Bank global civil society forum convened in Washington 20-22 April. The objectives of the forum were to:

  • promote substantive policy discussion between CSO leaders and Bank managers/staff on important development topics of mutual interest;
  • analyse lessons learned on Bank-CSO engagement and discuss ideas for improving this in the future, including a possible new framework for global Bank-CSO dialogue; and
  • promote greater mutual understanding of underlying positions/views and foster greater levels of trust.

The controversial forum was attended by more than 40 CSOs from across the globe to discuss poverty reduction strategy papers, millennium development goals, debt, trade, poverty and social impact analysis, and Bank-CSO relations. The first day of the meetings was mainly for CSOs to discuss and consult amongst themselves on critical issues and thrash out specific points to bring to the attention of the Bank. These discussions were on both thematic and regional bases. The next two days were led by the Bank, and senior management addressed the meetings with continued emphasis on Bank commitment to engaging with CSOs. CSO concerns from the forum include:

the agenda and meeting were largely dominated and therefore manipulated by the Bank
  • the agenda and meeting were largely dominated by the Bank. Although CSOs made several recommendations on various ways forward, these are unlikely to have any impact because CSOs remain the lesser partner. The meeting objectives are unlikely to be met as the agenda manipulation might deter the promotion of greater mutual understanding, substantive and thoughtful dialogue;
  • the Bank still has a long way to go in turning rhetoric into reality. Consultations remain superficial. Recommendations from civil society are ignored by the Bank and are not reflected in the institution’s policymaking. Yet they continue to highlight their commitment in dealing with CSOs, publicly acknowledging them as an important partner. CSOs must therefore guard against being used by the Bank to legitimise its operations;
  • the issues of power relations and political will upon which the development industry’s success rests are not being adequately addressed. The IFIs are still existing largely to strengthen US economic interests through their neo-liberal policies; and
  • amongst themselves, CSOs questioned the non-appearance of Wolfensohn’s successor, indicating the uncaring attitude with which CSOs will be handled during the ‘Wolf 2’ era.

Given the lack of progress in dealing with the IFIs, in future CSOs might consider employing the following strategies to move forward:

  • disengagement for strategic re-engagement: this would mean total disengagement with all IFIs. CSOs can try influencing IFI operations from the outside until such a time when the institutions are genuinely prepared to consider CSOs as an equal partner that can influence their work. The current set-up serves largely to legitimise the Bank’s existence;
  • continue to name, shame and expose negative IFI policies and operations; and
  • northern CSOs whose countries are major shareholders in the Bank tend to have more access to their governments than their southern counterparts. Northern CSOs should therefore continue to push their governments for reforms in the IFIs’ structure, policymaking and operations.

At the end of the meetings, out-going Bank president James Wolfensohn addressed the meeting, highlighting that the Bank was still committed to dealing with CSOs. He also noted that CSOs remain too critical of the Bank without coming up with viable options. The Bank urged that it is time for CSOs to put aside differences with the Bank and work in partnership for the benefit of the poor.

While Mr. Wolfehsohn may have had noble intentions regarding CSO engagement, unless there is genuine political will to change the current structure of the board to whom the president is accountable, the talk will remain rhetoric for a long time to come.

Comment by Moreblessings Chidaushe of the African network on debt and development (Afrodad), on the World Bank global civil society forum and the future of civil society and World Bank engagement.