Interview – John Clark

In 1992 John Clark moved from Oxfam headquarters in the UK to head the World Bank NGO Unit in Washington DC. Caroline Hartnell talked to him about the Unit’s work, and asked him whether it has been affected by the advent of Jim Wolfensohn as President and by wider changes in Bank thinking.

Established in 1944, the World Bank’s overarching objective is to work with member countries to fight poverty and to contribute to their long-term economic and social development. It does this by lending to sovereign governments, at their request. The Bank is owned by 185 member countries; there are currently 140 borrower governments. Last year US$236 billion worth of loan commitments were made. In FY97, total new lending (IBRD and IDA combined) came to US$19.1 billion.

The World Bank NGO Unit was set up in 1986. Before that there had been the NGO–World Bank Committee, formed in 1982 and handled by the Bank’s External Affairs Department.

Why was the World Bank NGO Unit set up in 1986?

It was set up mostly because of a realization that NGOs could be important as delivery agents for some Bank-financed projects.

The Bank has gone through three main phases in its relationship with NGOs. Until about 1980 there was no relationship, NGOs just did not feature on the radar screen of the World Bank. The World Bank’s concerns were very macro, with little opening for civil society perspectives.

During the latter part of the seventies there was an emphasis on poverty, but from a very macro viewpoint, the Bank working with governments on health programmes, education programmes and the like. By the end of the eighties serious questions were coming up as to whether all these programmes were really reaching the people they ought to benefit. At that stage people started to think about NGOs’ potential. There was a very utilitarian approach: how can we use NGOs? How can we harness their capacity to deliver services at a local level?  There was no fundamental change in what we were delivering; it was all about the mechanisms through which it was delivered. Throughout the 1980s there were the beginnings of operational collaboration with NGOs, mostly in health and education service delivery. By the year 1990, something like 12 per cent of Bank-financed projects had some sort of NGO involvement. Most of that was in health, education, water supply, rural development – those sorts of areas.

You said that roughly 12 per cent of Bank projects had some NGO involvement, but the Bank didn’t give money direct to NGOs?

No, that is correct, and  is still pretty much the case now. We don’t give money direct to NGOs. What we are talking about is Bank money going through governments, whom we encourage to work with NGOs. The money then goes from government to NGOs. Ultimately that might be a healthier way of working, as it builds up a relationship between the national government and the indigenous NGO community. When the outside money stops coming in, you have still got the relationship. If the relationship is purely between the external funder and the indigenous NGOs, the government doesn’t feel any ownership.

And what about the second stage in the Bank’s relationship with NGOs?

At the end of the eighties there began to be a lot of NGO criticism of the World Bank around structural adjustment, around the environmental ramifications of big dams and some of the other projects the Bank was financing. The second stage came about in response to all this criticism. There was a tendency to batten down the hatches, to try and see NGOs as trouble-making, politically motivated groups that were hell-bent on the destruction of  institutions. The mind-set of that time was: how can we avoid NGOs?

In the same period there emerged within the World Bank what I call ‘participation pioneers’. These staff saw that the utilitarian mode of harnessing delivery capacity was missing a really important facet, which is that NGOs – especially developing country NGOs – are effective because they enjoy the trust of and the proximity to poor people. By using them just to implement projects we were missing the opportunity to have NGOs as, as it were, interlocutors between people and decision makers. Really what we need to do is to learn to work in a participatory mode, to engage communities as partners in their own development. The Bank and the government can’t do that in isolation; we need to have organizations which really have their feet in the communities.

So this third and much more positive partnership phase has been emerging over the years. It involves working with NGOs from the design stage, or even before the design stage, when we are thinking about what our priority for poverty reduction in any given country should be  – and working with NGOs who really can demonstrate that they have got what I would call ‘social proximity’, that they really are trusted and work closely with poor people.

Does this last stage coincide with Jim Wolfensohn taking over as President?

It has certainly been very much accelerated by MrWolfensohn’s arrival, but it existed beforehand. In 1990 or 1991 the Participatory Development Learning Group was set up. This was a group of maybe 30 or 40 people who had been – I would say in spite of the system – developing ways of working that were participatory.

What MrWolfensohn has done is basically said, ‘I can’t believe you needed to think so long about all this. It is so evident that you can’t have decent development unless you engage the people, and I want this to happen everywhere.’ He has turned the institution around from one where people who wanted to do development in a participatory way were regarded as a to one where people are expected to work in these ways.

I wouldn’t say that the management system is entirely there yet. Mr Wolfensohn would like every project and every bit of work that the Bank does to be based upon consultation, participatory approaches and so on. There have now emerged a large number of staff who are doing things in a different way as a result of that. But there are also a large number ofmany staff who know how to talk participation but are still continuing with the old ways. So disentangling the hyperhetoric from the reality is not always easy.

What precisely is the remit of the NGO Unit?

Our work really is fourfold. The biggest aspect is operational collaboration– hwork more effectively with NGOs. Part of that is a fairly routine monitoring of what is going on, so that we can watch the progress, distil good lessons – and indeed bad lessons – and broadcast them.

So this is monitoring the progress of all the people who are now supposed to be working in a participatory way?

Yes, but we can’t do it all, there is a huge amount going on that we just don’t hear about. But what we try to do is establish feedback mechanisms. We now have NGO specialists full or part-time, in most resident missions around the world. And we’ve got contact people in different departments at Headquarters here. We use this system to try and get information about the path-breaking work that is going on and we try and find ways of broadcasting thatto all.

We do also get involved ourselves in specific operations, that are novel path-breaking. I spent some time last year, for example, with the Uganda Program trying to deal with one of the first-ever efforts to have a participatory process  the Bank’s strategy for that country. Normally this is something that is discussed between the Bank and the government, but we had a pretty open process and it was very enriching.

In all these operational activities, our message is to try and encourage the earliest possible involvement with NGOs, either indigenous NGOs or NGOs who have really got their feet in the communities.

And the Unit’s other areas of activity?

The second area is policy dialogue. This covers everything from trying to organize sensible discussions between Bank specialists in a given area and their NGO counterparts through to trying to bring about a more constructive discussion with NGOs that want to close the World Bank down. This includes things like the NGO–World Bank Committee, and regional meetings of that Committee.

The third area is more of an External Affairs function: getting messages out to the NGO world about things that the Bank is doing and making the case for development assistance and for Bank funding in particular. That is much more for External Affairs, but we do contribute to this. This work is vitally important because, in this country at least, the whole basis of development assistance has taken a real knocking: aid is very unpopular on The Hill.

The fourth area, which is the newest and somewhat controversial, is working with governments to encourage a more enabling environment for civil society – non-profit law very much fits into that category. We take opportunities to encourage governments to bring civil society to the table to discuss major policy issues; we have got quite a powerful brokering role in that sense.

You’ve talked about the three stages in the World Bank’s view of NGOs. Has the remit of the NGO Unit changed in that time?

Yes. I think when it was started the remit really was around harnessing NGOs’ capacity to deliver projects. By about 1990 there was real management concern about the growing criticism from the NGO world. There was a lot of pressure on the NGO Unit to be a public relations unit, and in fact it was moved into External Affairs. When I was asked if I was interested in heading the Unit, I wasn’t initially. My major point was that the NGO Unit was trying to be a single bridge between the World Bank and the NGO community: trying to explain the NGO community to the Bank and the Bank to the NGO community. What I thought was needed was for the NGO Unit to play much more of a facilitating role: to develop a hundred bridges, so that the relevant people in the Bank are meeting with the relevant people in the NGO world, whether it’s on a policy controversy or a project opportunity or whatever. That is where real partnership is possible. I think they liked that and it made sense, and on that basis they persuaded me to come in.

Is the changing, much more open attitude to NGOs that you describe part of much wider changes in the whole of the Bank?

Yes. This is very much why everybody is at the very least talking the talk. When MrWolfensohn arrived here he saw an institution that was aloof and arrogant, basically on a course for Mission Impossible. He saw that you cannot achieve poverty reduction just through central governments. Something as ambitious as poverty reduction requires all parties to play their part. So his message has been one of partnership, and when he talks about development partnership he is talking about governments; the donor community – not just the World Bank; civil society; the private sector; and indeed local government, not just central government.

Do you feel that the Unit gets support for what you are trying to do – what Wolfensohn’s trying to do – from the rest of the Bank?

We get support from some people, but some still display a lack of interest. Some country departments hear what MrWolfensohn says but feel they don’t need any help from anybody. Their view is: ‘So we’re going to work with NGOs. OK, so let’s appoint an NGO person and have an NGO component in all our projects.’ That is where you get some real problems.  They may appoint an NGO specialist who hasn’t got any NGO credentials, or they develop a relationship with the wr, NGOs based in capital cities that speak the language of the World Bank rather than NGOs with grass-roots credentials. They annoy NGOs by calling meetings at short notice and expecting everybody to drop what they are doing to come to hear the country director give a two-hour-long monologue on what the World Bank is doing in their country, and call that a consultation.

So we have problems with people in the Bank thinking they are doing what’s expected of them but actually perpetuating an image of the Bank as arrogant and not understanding the dynamics of civil society.

Final question: what would you do if you had more resources at your disposal? I assume that everybody would like to have more resources.

Where we’ve got very good, experienced NGO specialists in resident missions it really is beginning to transform our working relationships with NGOs. So the first thing I would like would be to really develop that programme globally so that we have good NGO specialists everywhere.

But even where we have got good people and there is a good NGO community, we are sometimes missing opportunities to develop real partnerships. That is partly due to the lack of flexibility in our business procedures. Sometimes Bank procedures – the procurement rules, for example – have been developed over the years to avoid the possibility of corruption. But that kind of motivation doesn’t marry easily with the notion of partnership. Partner NGOs get really frustrated: the checks and balances that are required are  horrendous, and sometimes we are talking about very small sums of money. These procedures are often geared around big contracts for construction companies or whatever. So the second thing I would like is for Bank business procedures to be much more flexible.

A related thing would be to have some more flexible funding. I would  be nervous about the Bank becoming a mainstream NGO funder because I don’t really think that’s our comparative advantage. But what I think we could do is have some flexible funding so that if we are developing a project, a grass-roots hunger eradication project for example, we can test out certain mechanisms. If we give grants in these circumstances, the government doesn’t have to pay us back so it can perhaps take a much more relaxed attitude. Then, as we demonstrate through that flexible grant mechanism that things are working, the objective would be to build scale by making it a mainstream project.

For further information about the World Bank NGO Unit, contact John Clark.
Tel +1 202 473 1840

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