Why have Bank-CSO dialogues on water faltered?

8 April 2006 | Guest comment

Since 2003, there have been two attempts at starting a World Bank-civil society dialogue on water supply issues. Both of these ground to a halt.

The first was led by Washington-based CSOs and got as far as two to three meetings in Washington and proposals on how to involve southern civil society active in the anti-privatisation movements especially in Latin America. The second attempt was led by London-based CSOs, focused on urban water supply and sanitation, involved social movement and service delivery NGOs from Africa, Asia and Central America, and got as far as an agreed programme of joint investigations and further work on access to information and cost recovery in urban water services. It has also spawned further discussions between the Bank and CSOs in Nigeria on the Bank’s Lagos and Cross River State projects. Many of the leaders of the anti-privatisation social movements invited to the second attempt boycotted it.

In Washington, ever since the anti-privatisation demonstrations exploded first in some countries in Latin America, later spreading to some countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, there has been internal pressure on the Bank’s water officials to start dialogues with civil society. Not only was the anti-privatisation movement driving investment away from the sector (and thus blocking Bank lending into the sector, as per their strategies), it was also paralysing even the most necessary reforms in poorly performing public water services.

Differences between CSOs contribute to paralysis

So why did the dialogues falter? In the first round, the dialogue was with the social movement CSOs in Washington. It was unclear to the Bank’s water officials where the dialogue would lead to, apart from exchanges of words and perhaps an agreement to disagree. Within the Bank at the time, some task managers wanted to expand the dialogue to those CSOs with direct experience of delivering water services, perhaps in order to keep the dialogues grounded. But before this could happen, the talks were halted by Bank water officials.

In an attempt to learn from the first failed round, the Bank entered the second round with more commitment – a whole team of task managers from the regions where the CSO participants came from, plus the director of the Water Supply and Sanitation (WSS) sector board. The dialogue this time focused on urban water supply and sanitation services – privatisation was only one aspect of the dialogue. The commitment carried on, after the first face-to-face dialogue, with activities to implement the agreements: the Bank circulated information on projects in the pipeline, task managers hosted CSOs for the start of a dialogue on cost recovery, and the Bank committed to making project information more accessible.

The Bank’s commitment this time stemmed from the need to mitigate two risks. The Bank was set to increase their annual investments in water infrastructure three-fold, and would invest this in public utilities and the domestic private sector, where past performance has been dismal. They needed to ensure that CSO concerns were aired earlier on in the project cycle, before the projects were appraised and approved. And secondly, they needed to ensure that their investments into public services would deliver what they were meant to – better performance from the public utilities, more people with access to services. CSO activity could ensure that there was accountability from the public utilities and the government officials responsible for them.

So why is the second dialogue process faltering too? With a programme of activities to pursue, the requirement of co-ordination amongst the CSOs, and between the CSOs and the Bank grew beyond the capacity of the individual CSOs at the centre of the dialogue. Primarily, this is because of the nature of the second dialogue – by and large, the CSO participants had not worked together before. They were not in common networks, they did not have a common forum nor mechanism for internal dialogue and partitioning of tasks.

A way forward for those in the Bank and CSOs that want to pursue the programme of activities globally, is to link up with existing international networks in water, like the Freshwater Action Network (FAN) to share the organisational load with them. FAN has members including activist and development CSOs in Africa and Central America. As a network, they are set up to communicate and mobilise their members for common activities.

Differences between the social movement/activist and development/service delivery CSOs also contribute to paralysis – particularly when these differences play out on a global stage. In this case, acting locally is likely to be the best way forward. CSO water networks exist now in many countries. And these networks are more likely to have a mix of memberships from organisations with a social movement as well as development/service delivery background. The dialogues need to be pursued at the local level in any case, if the Bank and the CSOs are to achieve what both claim to want: better performing public services that are accountable and improved delivery of sustainable and affordable services to the urban poor.

Belinda Calaguas is advocacy manager for WaterAid