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Tankers and rafts in the World Bank Spring meetings

Last month I was in Washington for the Annual Spring meetings of the World Bank. The Bank organizes these meetings and invites its shareholders – donor governments -to discuss politics and polices. Of the many meetings and sessions, there’s one particular moment I’d like to zoom in on in this blogpost.

Before I do that, allow me to tell you why I was there at all, not being a government delegate, not being a World Bank shareholder. I represented Cordaid, a Dutch NGO that supports civil society organizations in fragile, conflict-affected settings.

Antagonism turned into dialogue

In the past decade, The Bank – as the World Bank is commonly called – and civil society changed their ways of dealing with one another. To put it simplistically: antagonism turned into dialogue. Washington considers this dialogue a necessity. They know that if people on the ground do not buy into what is being done with World Bank money, the chances of sustainable development are very slim. They know that the SDGs, the world’s development agenda, will not be achieved without actively working together with NGOs and civil society organisations. These do not represent governments but the local communities, who often bear the brunt of inequality and the absence of good governance.

They know that the world’s development agenda will not be achieved without actively working together with civil society organisations.

Creating space for civil society

That’s why, parallel to the Spring and Fall meetings the World Bank organizes the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF). 15 years ago this would have been unthinkable. But today the World Bank actively creates space for civil society and promotes citizen engagement. And that’s no trifle. Because apart from implementing projects, civil society organizations are also critical watchdogs. They watch governments. They hold them accountable. They check whether the World Bank billions serve the people, not just the happy few of governments or big corporations. They check whether World Bank programs do not harm the poor, their livelihoods and their environment.

These checks are crucial. Because the hydro electrical, infrastructural and other mega projects financed with World Bank loans and led by governments, deeply impact the lives and surroundings of millions of people. Often for the better. But, unfortunately, sometimes also for the worse. Especially in fragile and conflict-affected settings where governments are often contested, situations are volatile, transparency is lacking and corruption is thriving.

Daunting tasks in a big arena

In this arena civil society has daunting tasks.  It enhances the quality of and access to public services, like healthcare, education, infrastructure and other basic aspects of life. It has the task – and the guts – to check and demand that governments who are spending World Bank loans actually implement the World Bank’s promise, which is to eradicate poverty, not to enrich the powerful.

To strengthen this kind of social accountability the Bank initiated the GPSA, which stands for Global Partnership for Social Accountability. Together with the World Bank, Cordaid stands at the cradle of this partnership.

Civil society has the task – and the guts – to check and demand that governments implement the World Bank’s promise, which is to eradicate poverty, not to enrich the powerful.

And that’s why I was in Washington: I was invited to take part in a CSPF panel discussion of the World Bank itself on the role of civil society in enhancing social accountability in fragile states.  Cordaid’s pioneering role in strengthening health systems through results based financing in countries like the Central African Republic and DR Congo – recognized by the World Bank – surely helped me as well to get invited.

Amicability or real debate

And now this particular moment I promised to zoom in on (sorry it took so long). As part of the Civil Society Policy Forum, civil society representatives had the opportunity to meet and talk directly with members of the Executive Board of the Bank, the governing body of the institution. The atmosphere was amicable. It reflected the improvement of relationships. At one point a civil society member took the floor and said: “It is not only about what the Bank can do for us, but also about what we can do for the Bank.”

Why was this so confronting – and not only to me? Because it implies a partnership of equals. It also undermines one of civil society’s raisons d’être, which is to be critical towards powerful and public institutions. We – NGOs, civil society organisations – are not equal partners. The Bank is a tanker, we are rafts, not even boats. This is not to belittle ourselves – a thousand rafts have the power to influence the course of a tanker too – but to clarify the difference in power. However much the Bank and governments use the word ‘partnership’, even ‘equal partnerships’, working with them involves unequal power relations. This is defining, because however amicable the atmosphere may be in the big conference rooms, when you express criticism, you can easily be pushed away for not partnering enough.

The Bank is a tanker, we are rafts, not even boats.

Let’s at least be honest

Everybody at that table knew that civil society is not an equal partner with the Bank or with its shareholders. We never will be. And we shouldn’t try to be. But let’s at least be honest what we can mean for each other. Let’s make the best of such opportunities for an honest debate on things that are sometimes going wrong.

Real space for civil society implies that we can hold the Bank and the member states accountable when thousands are driven off their land because of World Bank financed mines or dams in Guatemala or DRC. To name just two examples.

Fragility: increasingly World Bank territory

I know the Bank is genuine in its mission to involve civil society. In fact, it’s often some of the  shareholder governments (luckily not all, for sure), and especially their governmental counterparts at country level who are more keen on keeping civil society at distance. This is especially significant in fragile settings, where national governments don’t applaud a vibrant and critical civil society voice.

Real space for civil society implies that we can hold the Bank and the member states accountable when thousands are driven off their land because of World Bank financed mines or dams.

Conflict-affected settings are increasingly going to be World Bank territory. The International Development Association of the World Bank is going to double its investments in fragile settings in the next 5 years. It is therefore increasingly important to make sure local citizens are involved in a meaningful way in decisions and practices that will influence their lives. So the genuine answer to that question ‘what can civil society do for the Bank’ is that we should continue – more than before – to cooperate and also monitor World Bank and government spending and program implementation and prevent extra money from being an extra incentive for corruption.

However small our rafts may be

That’s our role. It is  GPSA’s role.  It’s an essential role, however small our civil society rafts may be. We shouldn’t deliberately belittle ourselves and amicably allow ourselves to be belittled. Because we speak in the name of the millions who are crushed, excluded and exploited. And whatever the setting of the debate, our main concern should always be: what can we do for them.

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