The World Bank’s Development Gateway is widely seen as an attempt to create a supersite that will be all things to all people in the development world. Is it really a sinister attempt by the World Bank to dominate the Internet or a worthy if in some ways over-ambitious effort to contribute to the solution of development problems? This article tries to unpick some of the issues.
First, what exactly is the Development Gateway? The Gateway brochure describes it as ‘a portal for development issues’ and ‘a knowledge-sharing initiative by and for those who have a stake and an interest in development’. It will include many different features.
The Gateway so far
One feature that no one seems to have much problem with is AIDA (Accessible Information on Development Activities), the Gateway’s huge donor database, due to almost double in size to 300,000 projects. The idea is to provide a unique forum for non-profits to find out what donors are doing and to communicate their needs to the international donor community.
Most controversial are the news and analysis sections, the ‘Topic’, ‘Community’ and ‘Country’ pages. ‘Communities’ refers to type of organization (government, private sector, NGO, etc). Content for these pages will be managed by ‘guides’.
The Bank at first proposed to appoint individual editors as topic guides, but has since moved to appointing institutions rather than individuals. But how do you find organizations that will be trusted by everyone? Pact, a Washington-based NGO that is involved in capacity-building across the world, has taken on the daunting task of acting as topic guide for the NGO/civil society pages.
A new foundation will be responsible for managing the Gateway. On 24 July the Bank Board of Directors gave the go-ahead to establish the Gateway Foundation and to transfer the $7 million worth of assets represented by the Gateway to it. The day-to-day running of the portal is likely to be contracted back to the Bank. The private donors and governments that have so far agreed to contribute will be made public over the coming months.
As well as managing the Gateway portal, the Foundation will make grants to redress the digital divide, possibly through infoDev. It is also committed to establishing a research centre in at least one developing country. It is due to be officially launched in December.
The key arguments against the Gateway are summarized in a paper written by Alex Wilks of the Bretton Woods Project – though even Wilks admits that the project has ‘worthy goals’. Criticisms focus around three main aspects: the scope of the project, the editorial approach and governance. It is also said that the Gateway will undermine existing national-level websites and international portals.
Scope of the project
The Gateway’s draft business plan is ambitious. It describes its objective as to ‘solve development problems by sharing high-quality information from local and national sources, tailored to users’ needs by topic and community’. Since then the Bank has scaled down its claims. The Gateway brochure talks of ‘helping communities, organizations, and individuals to build partnerships, share ideas, and work together to reduce poverty’. The name has changed too. The initiative started off as the Global Development Gateway but the ‘Global’ has now been quietly dropped.
John Garrison, Gateway’s Head of Civil Society, emphatically denies that the Bank is attempting to create any sort of ‘supersite’. ‘In our view the Internet is way too large and way too decentralized for one organization to try to control it. There is a built in control mechanism. If people perceive it as not open-ended or simply irrelevant, they just won’t go to it.’ He says it will be just ‘an additional platform among the numerous existing portals geared to sustainable development’. What makes it unique in his view is its commitment to bringing government, civil society and private sectors together.
The argument over control hinges partly on the term gateway. Is a gateway a gatekeeper? Garrison explains that the Bank doesn’t associate the term ‘gateway’ with the negative connotation of the word ‘gate’. ‘We see it as the gate to opening up to knowledge and new perspectives.’ Is a portal a jumping off point or an information store? ‘Technically we won’t be storing that much knowledge. The platform will be an aggregator of knowledge that’s resting somewhere else.’
The Bank sees itself as addressing the challenge of ‘inaccessible, fragmented information of unknown quality’ (draft business plan). Because there is so much information on the Internet, it is often hard to find what you want, and search engines do nothing to filter what is available. The Gateway site will filter material on the basis of quality. But is the answer to create what Wilks describes as ‘a super-site which can filter and catalogue all material from all perspectives on development’? This is surely ‘a crazy editorial proposition’, says Wilks, ‘from the Adam Smith Institute to the Zapatistas. How can it be all things to all people? And how can the Bank possibly play the role of a trusted intermediary that is trusted by all groups?’
Access is another issue. How will the poor, who have the greatest interest in development, gain access to it? Who will provide relevant content? Is it designed to make access easy for someone accessing the Internet through a rural telecentre? Site users are supposed to be able to comment on the content by ‘ranking’ material, but isn’t this much more likely to be done by someone with a lot of time at their own computer?
On the positive side, use of XML programming makes information-sharing possible. Converting material from other websites into XML makes it possible to bring it all together and search it. The Bank’s factsheet on AIDA suggests how this might work: ‘AIDA’s goal is to enable users to access information already available on websites of development organizations but through a common entry point that provides integrated results on all major activities by country, sector, funding organizations, operational status, etc.’ It is not too hard to see how information from donors could be pooled in a common database viewable through one website, but rather harder to see how this approach could work with complex policy issues.
The editorial approach
How will the Bank’s quality filter work? If it doesn’t have one, it will be no better than the search engines. If it does have one, then a key issue is who does the filtering and according to what criteria? And who selects them?
For the topic pages, the topic guides will do the filtering, with the help of a team of advisers appointed by them. All topic pages also have editors, who are World Bank staff. Their role is to work with the guides to promote the pages and find additional resources, as well as to ensure the technical quality of the pages.
Consortia to run country gateways are currently selected by an internal committee – two from infoDev, one from the Gateway and two from outside organizations – but it is on the cards that an external committee will take on this role. Even with an external committee, however, there are constraints on the way the World Bank can operate: country gateways consortia have to be approved by the country government and the Bank.
Having been selected, how can these guides possibly keep up to date with all the material being produced in their areas? For Jeff Kwaterski of Pact resources are a key issue here. Will the Bank devote resources to building an NGO presence on each country page? Will topic guides be able to be generators of content rather than just coordinators? Pact has been paid $20,000 for its work as topic guide so far. With these very limited resources, says Kwaterski, Pact can do no more than gather existing information. It serves as what he calls a ‘limited filter’ but has no real resources for providing content.
There are various sources of money available: consortia wanting to set up country pages could apply to infoDev for a grant of up to $75,000, and the Gateway Foundation will have a grantmaking fund. Another suggestion is that foundations might make grants to help NGOs develop content.
Another part of the editorial jigsaw is the Editorial Committee, including civil society representatives, whose task will be to set and monitor standards. Its terms of reference emphasize that the Gateway aims to serve ‘a diverse audience’ and that ‘Gateway users must be able to trust that the selection of [material] is unbiased’. Appointment of the Editorial Committee will be referred to the new Gateway Foundation board rather than being done by the Bank.
This leads directly to the question of governance. Who will be on the board? Large donors (probably over $5 million) will get seats but contributions could be in kind. One developed country donor government may allow a developing country to take its board seat. According to Garrison, the intention is to have civil society representatives from the start but as yet there is no shortlist.
Will the Gateway undermine country and other websites?
Not surprisingly, the Bank denies that the Gateway will compete with existing development portals or siphon off funds now destined for civil society Internet efforts. In fact, Garrison points out, the Gateway Foundation will leverage new funding for the ICT field. The Bank’s reply to the Bretton Woods paper also suggests that the country gateways will promote local information-sharing and ICT capacity-building in developing countries.
One big question is how accessible the Gateway software will be? Will ready-to-use packages be made available to development organizations wanting to create websites quite separate from the Gateway? So far source code has been given to teams working to develop country gateways and to the subsite set up by the NGO Working Group of the World Bank in the Eastern/Central Europe Region. According to Monika Quigley, Gateway Head of Technology, the Bank has developed open-source code ‘to enable us to distribute the code as widely as possible to developing countries and partners without having to pay proprietary licence fees’. However, the Bank admits that ‘At present, we do not comply with the true definition of Open Source.’
But this discussion may be jumping the gun somewhat. Asked if the Gateway is likely to undermine OneWorld and other civil society portals, Kwaterski takes a pragmatic view: ‘It needs to prove it’s an effective site before it can undermine anything. Just because the World Bank is doing it, it doesn’t mean people will use it.’ Though all the existing visitors to the World Bank site will surely give the Gateway at least a head start.
To engage or not to engage
Some CSOs have already decided against working with the Bank on the Gateway, including a group of 15 South African NGOs that met with Gateway staff in February. Costa Rica-based NGO network organization ALOP and other Latin American NGOs were considering becoming a topic guide for a Latin American civil society page but have now decided to establish an independent portal. The Bank has given them a grant to write a proposal. They may in time apply to the Gateway Foundation for money.
While the South Africa-based Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has opted for what director Anriette Esterhuysen calls ‘constructive disengagement’ with the Gateway, Pact and some other NGOs favour constructive engagement. As Kwaterski explained, ‘It’s better to be engaged and try to help ensure money is better spent.’ He describes Pact as a ‘patient partner’. But, as already mentioned, resources to develop content are a big issue for Pact. Another key question is whether the Bank will continue to allow anti-Bank literature to be posted. If it starts to censor material, ‘Pact will walk away’.
Could the Development Gateway have been designed in a radically different way? In February 2000 OneWorld put together a design brief that they felt might best serve the types of CSO they work with. They produced a proposal for a highly decentralized, network-based design which would have enabled different organizations or guides to sift through and display information stored, using XML. This would have resulted in multiple perspectives, providing competition for the Bank-appointed topic guides and producing information tailored for particular audiences rather than trying to meet everyone’s needs at the same time. While critics say this proposal has been more or less ignored, the Bank claim they have moved a long way towards decentralization – though their approach is ‘not quite as loose’.
John Garrison will now be taking on the HIV/AIDS page as well as his civil society role. His approach illustrates the Gateway’s new approach to topics, whose number will be greatly reduced in a new version of the Gateway portal: he wants to find a niche for the page; he doesn’t want it to duplicate other sites or simply to act as a library. So consultations – with WHO, UNAIDS, governments, CSOs – to find the right niche will be the first step. ‘If we can’t add value for our different audiences, then there isn’t any point.’
1 Development Gateway: Where worlds of knowledge meet.
2 The Information for Development Program (infoDev) is a global programme managed by the World Bank to help developing economies fully benefit from modern information systems. See http://www.infodev.org
3 Alex Wilks (April 2001) A Tower of Babel on the Internet? The Bretton Woods Project (BWP) is a UK-based campaigning group that monitors the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). To see this document and the Bank’s response, go to http://www.developmentgateway.org/topic/kiaq?kiaq_id=80709&community_id=6&country_id=0 or to BWP’s own site at
4 APC is an Internet site that focuses on the environment, human rights, development and peace.
5 These include Transparency International (global), Fondo Indigena (Bolivia), Tarahaat (India), Metropolis (Spain), Microcredit Summit (US) and Sinergia (Venezuela).
6 The Bretton Woods Tower of Babel paper and the latest corruption charges are included in the Gateway’s NGO page.