Social development in the World Bank, from vision to action

27 September 2005 | Resource

Panel: Steen Jorgensen, director, Social Development Department; Caroline Kende Robb, sector manager, Social Development Department, Manish Bapna, executive director, Bank Information Centre.

The session consisted of a presentation by Steen Jorgensen of the new social development report, a follow up by Manish Bapna of the Bank Information Centre and questions from the floor. Key issues discussed included: participation, rights and standards, infrastructure, empowerment and conditionality.

Steen Jorgensen impressed that “social development is about empowering people, and transforming institutions to make them more inclusive, cohesive and accountable”. The social development strategy (2005), officially endorsed by the Bank’s board in early 2005, emphasises that overcoming poverty is about more than getting economic policies right. There are 3 strategic priorities for social development (SD):

the Bank is indeed political and it should not use this as an excuse to side-step key issues
  • Strategic priority 1: more macro- Increase attention to social development in the Bank’s policy dialogue and policy based lending
  • Strategic priority 2: better projects – Improve project effectiveness by mainstreaming social development into project level processes and strengthening free-standing portfolio
  • Strategic priority 3: better grounding- Improve research, capacity building and partnerships
  • He asserted that although there is still progress to be made, the quality of attention to social development issues in projects has improved over the past four years. For instance, in terms of: integrating SD issues into country assistance strategies (CAS); up to 40 new country level social analyses have been carried out; and the number of projects mapped to SD themes increased to 9 per cent from 7 per cent. Moreover, there is a move to greater macro, policy and country focused work and less on a project by project basis. He identified a number of challenges, including: the fact that capacity building is lagging behind, and there may be greater scope for civil society involvement here; how to support a better social development content without more conditionality; how to balance Bank due diligence with support for in-country work; and defining the limits for Bank engagement (e.g in terms of restrictions under its articles of agreement from becoming too “political”)

    Manish Bapna explained that the social development unit is a natural ally of civil society, and is under certain constraints as to what it is allowed to do by the board. In terms of ‘participation’, there is a “rhetoric versus reality” dilemma, and an uneven process between countries in such mechanisms as PRSPs and CASs. Civil society involvement in macro-economic policy has been negligible, and this should be addressed. He Jorgensen’s point in relation to limits of the Bank’s engagement- the Bank is indeed political and it should not use this as an excuse to sidestep key issues. He asserted that development projects should adhere to international standards, and questioned why the Bank is absent from this, with regards to such issues as free prior and informed consent (FPIC), and ILO conventions. He asked if the SDD could show leadership in this field. In relation to the Bank’s return to large infrastructure lending, he asked for clarification on what type of infrastructure leads to poverty reduction measures, and raised the role of safeguards and country systems in relation to this.

    Khadim Hussain, from Action Aid Pakistan asked how the notion of social development could be standardised in a homogenous fashion across the whole world. Jorgensen responded that “hope” is common to all sustainable development paths. Politics should provide equal access and a level playing field. It is not controversial to give women access to credit, information and the power base.

    Jorgensen acknowledged that there is an increasing need to integrate the international body of rights related work into the bank’s safeguard policies. In relation to human rights, he explained that the Bank’s legal department is working hard on this issue, and is no longer in denial. Despite this, human rights is only mentioned once in the strategy (in a footnote) because it is not acceptable to do so overtly. In particular, developing country governments on the board are opposed to it. He thinks there are strong links between accountability, rights and empowerment. He felt gains had been made in the recent policy on indigenous peoples in relation to Broad community support. John Garrison said that civil society organisations demand that the Bank impose environmental and social conditionality, but this trumps the principle of sovereignty, that is used as an argument against conditionality. His question, “under what conditions do environmental and social standards trump sovereignty?” was challenged by Manish Bapna who outlined the very clear distinction between conditionality and international standards: International conventions, treaties and norms on human rights, labour and the environment are constructed very differently from the principles that are central to conditionality, such as liberalisation and privatisation. Countries ratify treaties and conventions into their national legal architecture, and this is not imposed upon them as a condition of lending.