Disclosure: The World Bank is a funder of Global Integrity. Details below post.
Last week, World Bank President Robert Zoellick gave a major policy address suggesting the World Bank embrace more political (as opposed to strictly economic) reforms in countries in order to stimulate governance reforms and, ultimately, encourage poverty reduction and growth. This past Friday, the Center for Global Development’s Todd Moss questioned Zoellick’s proposed approach in a blog post entitled, “The World Bank as a Foundation? Why I’m Scratching My Head Over the World Bank’s New Vision…” Here’s our take on the emerging debate.
As Moss correctly points out, part of what Zoellick appears to be proposing is that the Bank establish new funding mechanisms to directly support civil society organizations working on transparency and accountability reforms. Zoellick said:
I suggest it is now time for the World Bank to examine, with its Board and shareholders, whether the Bank needs new capabilities or facilities that could leverage support from countries, foundations, and others to strengthen the capacity of CSOs working on accountability and transparency in service delivery. We could give priority to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. We could back this work with seed capital, and with knowledge exchange and research aimed at improving the enabling environment for social accountability.
In one way or the other, a modernized multilateralism needs to recognize that investments in civil society and social accountability will be as important to development in the Middle East and beyond as investments in infrastructure, firms, factories, or farms.
Pretty strong stuff from any World Bank president. As many readers will know, the Bank is currently prohibited, by mandate, from engaging in overtly political reforms in countries; their clients, after all, are sitting governments. For Zoellick to come out in favor of the Bank “getting political” is a bold move.
To return to Moss’ helpful critiques:
Now, I’m all for helping to create popular demand for accountability and transparency, but is this really the comparative advantage of the World Bank? Isn’t this exactly the kind of “mission creep” Jessica Einhorn (wisely) warned against a decade ago? Isn’t direct support for civil society better handled by foundations and organizations like the Open Society Institute than a huge international financial institution without the same on-the-ground links and legitimacy?
These are very good questions that deserve some unpacking.
Is this really the comparative advantage of the World Bank?
We’re not sure it’s a definitive “No.” The Bank has been at the forefront of a significant body of work around access to information reforms, procurement systems, civil service reform, and a range of other governance and transparency efforts. While Wednesday’s speech was the first time we’ve ever heard a senior official at the Bank publicly suggest the Bank “get political,” a number of quiet but important programs and knowledge sharing initiatives have been underway for many years. This is not blue sky stuff for the World Bank, and on certain key reforms (procurement, civil service reform) the Bank may indeed have a comparative advantage, in our view.
Isn’t this exactly the kind of “mission creep” Jessica Einhorn (wisely) warned against a decade ago?
Perhaps. This is a valid criticism that Zoellick and his staff will have been trying to deflect in front of the World Bank board this past weekend, we’re sure. The more important question may be not whether this is mission creep, but whether the mission creep is a bad thing. That’s debatable. As one of our colleagues here at Global Integrity observed, “Dealing with people, governance, security, human nature, accountability, transparency, and ‘culture’ doesn’t necessarily promote mission creep but, in fact, reconfigures the terrain of development so that all these issues can be seen in an integrated, relational, and holistic way that – on the contrary – bring better focus to World Bank projects.”
Isn’t direct support for civil society better handled by foundations and organizations like the Open Society Institute than a huge international financial institution without the same on-the-ground links and legitimacy?
Let’s take this one bit by bit. Concerning on-the-ground links, this really depends on the foundation in question. Sure, OSI, Ford, and a few other large foundations have offices in other countries with local staff, and their headquarters program managers maintain relationships on the ground as well. But most foundations struggle with small staffs overburdened by massively large portfolios; we routinely receive requests from foundations for introductions to in-country colleagues. An advantage of a multilateral institution such as the Bank is that it has a physical presence in all sorts of countries. We see this as an advantage over many foundations, in fact.
Concerning legitimacy: sure, the Bank has its detractors, but so do the very same foundations. To perceive OSI or the Ford foundation as purely “neutral” (especially by host governments) is to take a somewhat naive view of their objectives. In some (though certainly not all) cases, the Bank may indeed be less agenda driven.
To be clear, we’re not World Bank fan boys or girls. We have our gripes with the way the Bank does business in many countries (here, here among others). But the fight Zoellick has teed up with his board admittedly has us excited: taking the political shackles off of the Bank could, we think, unleash a wave of opportunity to further the agenda of governance and transparency reforms in many countries. And we’re all for that.
— Nathaniel Heller
— Image: World Bank file photo (cc by/nc/sa)
Note: Global Integrity receives financial support from both the Open Society Foundations and the World Bank; please see our Funders and Financials page for details.