When Jim Wolfensohn stepped down last year after a decade as President of the World Bank, some civil society groups expressed concern about what would happen to his legacy of increasing the participation of civil society in the Bank’s work. That concern was shared by a number of Bank staff, including myself, who are advocates for engagement with civil society and whose positions were either created or bolstered during the Wolfensohn era.
However, in his first year as president, Paul Wolfowitz demonstrated a strong commitment not only to continue, but also to further strengthen, the Bank’s engagement with civil society. From the start of his presidency in June 2005, Mr Wolfowitz has made it a priority to seek the views of civil society representatives. In his first annual meetings speech in September 2005, he highlighted civil society’s key role in delivering essential services to poor people and holding governments accountable.
He has repeatedly stressed this message since. Civil society features prominently in the Bank’s renewed focus over the past year on good governance and fighting corruption as a means to reducing poverty and achieving better development outcomes. In an April 2006 speech in Jakarta, Mr Wolfowitz stressed that the Bank should do more to strengthen institutions of accountability, including independent media and civil society. Support for the so-called ‘demand’ side of good governance is now a key pillar of the Bank’s new governance and anti-corruption strategy. 
At the 2006 Bank–IMF annual meetings in Singapore, Mr Wolfowitz urged the host government to reverse a decision to block certain accredited CSO representatives from entering the country. He strongly defended the right of civil society, including critics of the Bank, to participate in the annual meetings and to protest peacefully. ‘We may or may not agree when there is criticism,’ he said, ‘but we will do a much better job if our ears are open and we listen.’
Civil society part of the business model
As an element of the Bank’s trends in recent years towards working more closely with external partners, becoming more transparent, and taking a more holistic approach to development, civil society engagement has become part of the Bank’s business model. At the country level, over two-thirds of new Bank projects approved each year involve CSOs in design, implementation or monitoring. Nearly half of the more than $1.1 billion the Bank has lent for Multi-Country AIDS Programs (MAPs) has been committed to CSOs, especially those working at community level. The Bank consults CSOs on most of its new country assistance strategies (CASs) and is supporting ‘social accountability’ approaches to development where citizens’ groups are empowered to monitor government results, whether it is the flow of resources from HIPC debt relief in Ghana and Zambia or the quality of health services in Malawi.
At the institutional level, the Bank regularly consults with CSOs on new or revised operational policies, such as development policy lending and information disclosure, and on issues such as climate change and debt relief. Strategic partnerships have been formed between the Bank and CSOs, such as the World Bank–World Wildlife Fund Global Forest Alliance and the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. The Bank also provides some direct grant support to CSOs, such as in post-conflict situations, to promote civic engagement or pilot innovative projects. The Bank regularly invites civil society to participate in dialogue at global events such as its annual meetings and UN conferences, and has established mechanisms for engaging with specific civil society constituencies such as trade unions, faith-based organizations, disabled peoples’ organizations and youth networks.
Challenges to engagement
However, many long-standing challenges to effective Bank-civil society engagement still remain. A March 2005 report entitled Issues and Options for Strengthening Engagement Between the World Bank and Civil Society Organizations concluded that the Bank needs to (a) apply lessons learned and best practices for engaging civil society in a more consistent manner; (b) close the gap between its rhetoric and its policies and practices; (c) change its way of doing business to reflect the new realities of global and local civil society; and (d) ensure Bank-wide coherence and accountability in its engagement with CSOs. The report cites, in particular, civil society frustrations with recent global consultation processes, limits on disclosure, weak oversight and incentives for staff, and business processes that do not adequately encourage civil society participation.
To address these issues, the report made a number of recommendations, including finding more inclusive and more strategic ways to engage with CSOs, particularly at the global level; improving stakeholder consultations; strengthening internal systems for monitoring the Bank’s work with civil society; providing better guidance and support for Bank staff; and holding periodic reviews of Bank–civil society engagement. The conclusions and recommendations in this report complemented those contained in a July 2005 report entitled A Call for Participatory Decisionmaking, commissioned by 16 global civil society networks.
Given the role many CSOs play as so-called watchdogs of government and of publicly funded institutions such as the Bank, there will always be areas of tension between the two. Civil society criticisms of the Bank often result from the lack of consensus among the 184 member governments represented on the Bank’s Board over such issues as how to increase the involvement of developing countries in the Bank’s governance structure; where to set limits for information disclosure; minimum standards for consultation; and aid conditionality.
There also is no consensus among CSOs on how to engage with the Bank. Some groups want to partner on Bank-financed projects; others are opposed to any engagement or concerned about being co-opted. Some of the Bank’s borrowing countries have strong civil societies with established mechanisms for dialogue with their governments; in others, the lack of a sufficient enabling environment is a major impediment to the Bank’s own ability to reach out to civil society.
… and opportunities
Nevertheless, the Bank’s renewed focus on good governance and fighting corruption presents an opportunity for global civil society. CSOs can help the Bank to target and implement its work in this area, and press their own governments to remove some of the obstacles to civil society involvement in policymaking. Mr Wolfowitz has signalled his willingness to challenge the Bank’s way of doing business by his decisions to investigate, suspend or delay Bank lending to countries where there has been evidence of fraud or corruption.
Another indication of change inside the Bank is the willingness to tackle other subjects once viewed as too political, such as freedom of the press and human rights. The October 2006 issue of the World Bank Institute’s quarterly magazine Development Outreach focuses on human rights and development. It includes an article by the Bank’s new General Counsel, Ana Palacio, who writes: ‘It is now clear that the Bank can and sometimes should take human rights into consideration as part of its decision-making process.’ She goes on to propose a legal framework to guide the Bank in this area. Yet with both governance and human rights, lack of Board consensus may limit the scope and pace of change.
Finally, the Bank and many CSOs today have a growing number of agendas in common – promoting higher and more effective aid flows, fair trade, education for all, debt relief and sustainability, combating climate change, and ensuring that infrastructure investments are more environmentally and socially sustainable – with special attention on the poorest people in Sub-Saharan Africa. This demonstrates how civil society has already had an impact on the early period of Wolfowitz’s tenure at the Bank. For CSOs, continued influence will depend both on ongoing engagement with the Bank and its member governments and on mobilization of public pressure. For the Bank, the test will be whether it is willing not only to listen but also to learn and adopt the lessons from the past.
Carolyn Reynolds Mandell is coordinator of the Global Civil Society Team, World Bank. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not imply endorsement by the World Bank.
Comment Alan Fowler
This article’s description of what presidential transition at the World Bank means for civil society is both encouraging and worrying. Encouraging is the prospect of further opening up of civic participation in the Bank’s advice and lending, allied to ongoing critical evaluation of the relationship. Disquieting is the lack of contextualization in today’s world order which gave rise to the anxieties mentioned in the opening paragraphs.
The appointment of a controversial political scientist rather than a banker might signal a leadership perspective more openly recognizing that combating poverty, inequality and injustice are political tasks. The Bank’s recent tentative embrace of human rights, the priorities to fight corruption and promote good governance, and the common agendas in the article’s closing paragraph are cases in point. But, in enlisting civil society to help pursue such agendas, who carries most risk – Bank staff or civil society activists? Is there a danger of CSOs being used as proxies in a more ideologically driven agency with an unfair division of the consequences?
A more honest engagement between the Bank and civil society cannot ignore the elephant in the room of state sovereignty and its protection, exemplified by recent clampdowns on civic organizing by Russia. Environments shift and leaders change. Let us not be lulled into thinking that continuity towards civil society engagement means business as before.