Civil society and the World Bank – the road to participation

Veena Siddharth

When PRSPs became a requirement for debt relief under HIPC in September 1999, it was specified that they had to be developed through a participatory process involving all ‘development partners’. How did PRSPs come to include this emphasis on participation and what has it meant in practice? Will PRSPs reduce poverty and increase the accountability of governments to the poor?

PRSPs are now prepared in numerous non-HIPC countries as well. There are varying perspectives on how the tie between participation and donor assistance through the PRSP came about. Factors include the campaign for debt relief, new research findings, and an acknowledgement that the existing system was not delivering the results needed.

Previous civil society involvement with the Bank

Until about 1995, when James Wolfensohn became President of the World Bank, civil society participation in the Bank’s work focused on project implementation by operational NGOs. Environmental organizations tried to increase accountability by pointing to lapses in environmental and social safeguards in Bank projects, but it was still difficult for civil society organizations (CSOs) to take part in policy discussions led by the Bank and IMF.

Most policy documents were confidential and not available outside government and donor agencies, even in the countries concerned. Moreover, the Bank’s interlocutor on policy issues was the borrowing governments. Policy discussions were considered too technical for CSOs, whose expertise was seen as being with grassroots projects.

In 1995, Oxfam lobbied for participation in and release of the Bank’s Country Assistance Strategy (CAS), the document outlining the Bank’s overall programme in a given country. CASs were then confidential documents written by Bank staff in consultation with governments, and could not be released to the public, even if the borrowing government consented. The end result of Oxfam and other NGO lobbying, donor support and increased openness within the Bank, was that donors agreed to make participation in and release of CASs a condition of the replenishment of IDA.[1] For many southern NGOs, CAS consultations in the mid-1990s were their introduction to the Bank and its role with their governments in formulating development policy. At the same time, the Bank was also doing more participatory poverty assessments to incorporate the views of poor people into its country programmes.[2]

Mounting pressure for change

By the late 1990s, external pressure on the Bank, IMF and donor community to open up their decision-making processes mounted. The Jubilee 2000 campaign asked why the poorest countries had to repay debts incurred without discussion with their citizens. The Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) mobilized around the lack of participation in decisions leading to policy reform. Oxfam, Eurodad, the Jubilee network and other groups lobbied the G-7 as well as the Bank and IMF for a more open system of deciding development policy and channeling debt relief.

Publication of the World Bank report Assessing Aid[3] pointed to other changes needed, as did the 1997 External Evaluation of the IMF’s Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) for the poorest countries.[4] Assessing Aid established the importance of good policies that are ‘owned’ by the country for the best use of foreign aid. The ESAF Evaluation found that when IMF programmes were not discussed by line ministries or widely understood by the public, they were more likely to fail. Results were thus linked to the quality of policies, ownership and transparency rather than the quantity of aid. There continues to be debate between the international financial institutions and civil society about what constitute ‘good policies’, but both sides agree that governments that are accountable and open have a greater chance of delivering results.

Progress so far

The PRSP offers the potential of greater accountability on the part of governments and donors, and increased country ownership of programmes that are shaped by the perspective of the poor, leading to better results. A great deal of civil society energy has now been invested in PRSPs, and there are some positive outcomes. CSOs that had never met with their finance ministries are now familiar with the budget process and resource allocation. In Malawi, for example, the Malawi Economic Justice Network is focused on monitoring pro-poor budget allocations.[5]

It is still early to assess results. As expected, the initial approach to participation was uneven. Many CSOs, particularly in the initial Interim-PRSPs, complained that they were being consulted but did not see the results of their input. However, in some countries, such as Bolivia, despite the limitations of early participatory approaches, issues of exclusion and corruption affecting the poor did get raised in discussions and shaped the full PRSP.[6]

With rising expectations has come greater frustration, however, as CSOs wonder if the PRSP is diverting them from real questions about the impact of economic reform. Perhaps the greatest disappointment to civil society is that the discussions on macroeconomic policy appear to be separate from the PRSPs and discussions on structural reforms are still not systematically integrated.[7] Governments will need to work with the Bank, the IMF and other donors to carry out poverty and social impact analysis of reforms, accompanied by monitoring that includes civil society. On their part, CSOs will need to continue to invest in the technical expertise they will need to influence these discussions.

Realizing the potential

Three areas need to be tackled if participation in PRSPs is to further poverty reduction and contribute to greater democracy and accountability:

Deepening the participatory process on policy issues
Not all aspects of policy reform easily lend themselves to public discussion. Themes such as privatization and financial sector reform are both intensely political and highly technical. Still, there has been progress in CSOs’ capacity in countries such as Malawi, Ghana, Uganda and Albania to discuss and influence budget allocations.[8] In addition, monitoring the impact of economic reforms is starting to become a part of some PRSPs through assessments of policy impact on the poor.[9] It will be essential in the next phase of PRSPs for governments, bilateral donors, the Bank and IMF to actively bring elements of the economic reform programme into the broad discussion with the public.

Creating a legal framework to support civic engagement
In some countries, CSOs are vulnerable to laws that suppress their activities and financing. In others, the existing legal structure does not recognize aspects of CSO work in human rights and poverty. One positive outcome of PRSP consultations in Mauritania, Yemen and Bolivia has been legislation to support CSO participation in policy. Some donors are supporting these efforts and the CSO global alliance CIVICUS is also working on this area.[10]

Tackling civil society’s accountability
Linked to the legal framework for CSO participation is increased government questioning of civil society’s accountability. Civil society includes a vastly diverse set of actors. Some, such as trade unions and cooperatives, are membership organizations and have clear lines of accountability. Others include faith-based groups, community organizations, research institutions and NGOs. Not all work directly on poverty issues, the focus of the PRSP.

As they often derive legitimacy from their work rather than their membership, it is NGOs that are often called to task on the issue of accountability. For some NGOs, the issue is a thorny one, especially in countries where the NGO community is still young. Governments ask: who does a particular NGO represent and with what funding? Which position should influence policy when views among NGOs are contradictory?

Sometimes these questions reflect discomfort with the role of civil society in the democratic process or a lack of understanding of what that could be. There may be organizations within civil society that are not representative or transparent in their activities. It is up to CSOs themselves to tackle this issue and define their own standards for conduct so that their involvement is not obstructed by those that wish to curtail overall CSO participation. CIVICUS is one of the groups attempting to develop a framework for CSO accountability led by CSOs. Ultimately, it is those CSOs that have a profound knowledge of the views of poor and vulnerable groups that should be involved.


It is too early to say whether participation in the PRSP has been a success. However, it is important to recognize the progress that has been made over the last three years in demystifying the workings of government, the World Bank and even the IMF. Advances in information technology that make CSO advocacy more global, a shift to the field for key decision makers in the World Bank, and a political climate where accountability and transparency are seen as essential elements in development have all helped make these changes happen. The focus now has to be on PRSP implementation and monitoring, with a focus on the impact of policies on the poor. Increased poverty in some regions, the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, and other challenges in the broader environment mean that change will require patience, perseverance and partnerships around shared objectives.

  1. Virtually all IBRD CASs for emerging market countries are formulated through consultative or participatory approaches and made publicly available.
  2. Caroline Robb (2002) Can the Poor Influence Policy? IMF and World Bank.
  3. Assessing Aid: What works, what doesn’t and why World Bank, 1998. See also Paul Collier and David Dollar Aid Allocation and Poverty Reduction, World Bank, 1998.
  4. ESAF was replaced in 1999 by the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF).
  5. Max Lawson, Monitoring Policy Outputs: Budget monitoring in Malawi, Oxfam GB, 2002.
  6. Ros Eyben in Finance and Development, Vol 39, No 2, June 2002.
  7. Rosemary McGee with Josh Levene and Alexandra Hughes, Assessing participation in poverty reduction strategy papers: a desk-based synthesis of experience in sub-Saharan Africa Institute for Development Studies, Feb 2002.
  8. ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: Progress in Implementation’ September 13,2002, World Bank and IMF
  9. This poverty and social impact analysis is taking place in several countries on a pilot basis, sometimes supported by bilateral donors such as DFID and the Norwegian government.
  10. CIVICUS is a global alliance of CSOs, with offices in Johannesburg, Washington DC and London. Its mission is to strengthen citizen participation and civil society globally.

Veena Siddharth is Senior Partnerships Officer in the Africa Region at the World Bank. She was at Oxfam International’s Advocacy Office from 1995 to 2000. She can be contacted at

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