In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) – World Bank and IMF – decided to cancel the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF). During the October Annual Meetings in 2019, nearly 900 civil society organisations (CSO) attended the CSPF, where participants organised 47 sessions to discuss various aspects of BWI programming and approaches. Given the context, the decision to cancel the Spring Meetings CSPF and move the Spring Meetings to a virtual format was certainly understandable. However, a March article in news website Devex reporting that the World Bank Staff Association had called for a permanent cancellation of future Spring Meetings was cause for concern. CSOs recognise that the Spring and Annual Meetings CSPF format is hardly ideal for substantive engagement with Bank and Fund staff and is in need of improvement (see Statement February 2016; Open letter to World Bank president and IMF managing director, October 2015). CSOs are nonetheless concerned by the dismissive attitude of the Staff Association, particularly given long-standing calls for improved civil society engagement (see Inside the Institutions, World Bank’s country engagement approach).
Despite the cancellation of this Spring Meeting’s CSPF, CSOs will continue to press for an opportunity to engage with the World Bank president and IMF managing director during these extraordinary times. Although ‘townhall’ meetings with the World Bank president and IMF managing director normally do not take place during Spring Meetings, the current circumstances call for a proactive approach by the leadership of the BWIs. Though the virtual format means that an extraordinary ‘townhall’ or separate meetings with the leadership could in theory take place after the Spring meetings, no plans for this have been made public.
As the World Bank and IMF develop and implement their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered, CSOs will continue to call for input into Bank and Fund activities to ensure that they do not constitute a more hastily conceived and better-funded ‘business as usual’ response that further exacerbates inequalities and the existential climate crisis. As a 17 April Guardian newspaper article noted, the pandemic’s impact is already pressuring governments to bail out polluters and undermine environmental regulations. A 14 April statement by the UN expert on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association similarly raised concerns about ongoing threats to these fundamental rights in the guise of covid-19 responses. He noted that, “States responses to Covid 19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association”. Given pre-existing concerns about the negative consequences of global economic systems based on market-based solutions, mega-infrastructure and increased financialization – all of which are supported by the of World Bank (see Observer Spring 2020, Summer 2017, Spring 2016) and IMF (see Dispatch Springs 2020; Observer Spring 2020, Autumn 2019) – there is a real danger that the frantic race to stimulate economic activity at any cost in the post-emergency phase will result in an increase in threats to human rights defenders, additional limitations to press freedom, more pressure on already restricted civil society space and damaging environmental policies.
Rather than advocating for the cancellation of a flawed but important forum for World Bank, IMF and global civil society exchanges, we would welcome concrete suggestions by the World Bank Staff Association on improvements to the civil society engagement at the Spring Meetings and beyond – particularly given the global context.