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Arab citizens demanding a seat at the virtual table

Amina Semlali's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
Development agencies, such as the World Bank, have often been criticized for not sufficiently listening to the people they are trying to help. For acting without first systematically assessing whether beneficiaries agree with the strategies produced and projects developed on their behalf.

World Bank | Arne Hoel | 2011To address this, many World Bank teams now arrange in-country consultations with a broad range of people including civil society, young people, and government representatives, depending on the type of project. These gatherings provide the Bank team with an opportunity to get input directly from some of the people who can benefit from a Bank supported effort before the work begins and the strategy is set. This may be a promising approach, but it carries with it a great limitation: reach. There are only a limited number of people that can be invited to these face-to-face consultations.  

The World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has recently begun tapping into the potential of social media to learn from a broader spectrum of citizens across the region. For example, in January the MENA region Vice President, Inger Andersen, held Live Web Chat conversations with 600 people to better learn about their priorities.

Another approach, tried by the MENA Social Protection Team, entails reaching out to citizens –in addition to face-to-face consultations - via twitter, Facebook, live chat and blog posts. The aim is to create an enormous virtual discussion table and to seek input on specific topics. The idea is that citizen feed-back will directly help form more nuanced and pertinent World Bank products.

This is the World Bank learning from the Arab street via social media. This is citizen empowerment via social media.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has revealed a technology savvy and creative new generation. This generation is now taking a seat at the table, or rather, they are demanding a seat at the table and a say in the way development choices that affect them are made. Terminology such as “helping” and “aid” is becoming timeworn. It is more a matter of working alongside a generation that wants to be in charge of their own future.

Please stay tuned and do join the discussion the coming couple of weeks. One of the first topics to be discussed at the virtual table will be: How can young people and females better be included in the labor market?


Submitted by Um Amani on
Glad to learn about these new initatives by the World Bank. Indeed there is a whole new generation out there "that wants to be in charge of their own future" as you put it.

I hope that is appreciated as the resource it is!

While I applaud this worthy initiative to include input from previously unrecognized or ignored stakeholders (as the Bank likes to call them) in development projects via methods of modern technology such as social networking, I hope that this broader aim is not pursued strictly via this technology. While the new/young generation may indeed be "tech savvy," there is a large segment of potential development aid recipients/beneficiaries who either may not have access to this technology, or whose valuable perspective still would be critically underrepresented in fora such as blogs, chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook, etc. There is some social strata self-selection that could be inadvertently implied in reaching out on poverty alleviation/development related initiatives to those with Facebook and Twitter accounts, and the target audience may be missed.

In other words, I hope the technology will not serve as a substitute for soliciting input from these previously marginalized sections of civil society, per this new initiative, the "old-fashioned way:" by reaching out to them directly in person. Only then, cumulatively through the combination of technology and otherwise, can thorough information be sought and obtained. The goal of incorporating the views of citizens (especially those directly affected by projects) across a broad spectrum cannot be met simply by bludgeoning the problem with technology alone. Instead, it requires a more holistic change in World Bank management mindset to proactively seek out and implement citizens' input as in-depth and as frequently as possible, in the spirit of partnership. I am not convinced that such a mindset exists. I hope that World Bank staff will take into account suggestions such as these provided via this mechanism, and respond with explanations why they do or do not adopt them.

Thank you.

Submitted by FAY MOGHTADER on
I think it is very crucial to use Facebook, Twitter and all the new technology that is available now to get feedback from people, especially the youth.

You can reach a lot more audience that way, so why not?

Submitted by Imane on
A live citizen brainstorming through social media. This is a great initiative from the World Bank!

It will definitely make the World Bank projects more popular.

Can't wait to join the next virtual table!

Submitted by Sherif Ashkar on
Interesting piece, and seems like an unusual approach by a big institution like the World Bank. I hope it takes off.

I agree with the comment above, Awinash Bawle, that some marginalized groups will most likely not be able to take part in this virtual discussion. This is something the World Bank will have to keep in mind, rural populations and so on.

However, this being said: everyone can not be reached at the same time. The young in the Arab world are connected and I am happy that we will be able to share our thoughts at this forum.

The topic is supposed to be youth employment. Let me share a first opinion: yes, there are no jobs, yes the young do not have the right qualifications, but the truth is - even if we did the problem of NEPOTISM and corruption would have to be resolved. Nepotism and having the right contacts is all that matters. I look forward to discussing how we can change that attitude. Things are changing and in Egypt I hope we can work on changing things bottom up, turn the shirt inside out. Peace.

Submitted by Omar Reda on
Interesting article. Author is trying to highlight and address the need to change the World Bank modus operandi from an institution that uses aid to implement policies favorable with the Bank's funding powers rather than to cater for the actual development needs of the recipient countries.

While I applaud the attempts by World Bank staff to change this policy and hope that these efforts will work, I believe it will require a complete overhaul of how the World Bank operates before any such effort is successful.

Submitted by Annahita on
Great piece!! The borders of the world no longer exist due to the internet connection and social media. The interconnectedness of the globe is not longer a poetry rather a reality. So using the tools such as social media, etc is a brilliant idea for any organization to globalize. Revolutions have started and ended there, why not more?

Submitted by Joe on
Glad to hear organizations such as the World Bank opening up to listen more. What the developing world needs are elegant solutions, ones that come from the needs of the people they are trying to help. I hope they continue down this path and increase communication, but also listen to that communication as well with a sensitive and intelligently aware ear.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Thank you for sharing these important and exciting initiatives to give greater voice to citizens through social media! Social media provides a great opportunity for the World Bank to learn from a wider group of stakeholders.

Submitted by Bilkiss on
Great article Amina. Your enthusiasm is amazing. Your dedication and work on this World Bank initiative should be applauded!! Looking forward for the next piece on the virtual table....

Submitted by Dana on
Thank you for this opportunity. Indeed the Bank so far draws its decisions about which projects to fund and what priorities to focus on based on discussions held with the "Decision Makers" in our developing countries. Knowing that most DMs in these countries have been infected by corruption, then no wonder why the priorities communicated to the bank by those DMs are far from being focused on the goal of actual development but are more linked to which projects these DMs can benefit from on personal levels. I support very much creating space for the public to have a say in what is going around, beacuse this public who has no access to nor influence on the accounts where the money is being poured will definitely be more focused on the need to make sure the money is being used for the well-being of the society.

Submitted by Raghada on
I highly respect the author's precise awareness of the current situation and stance of youth as stated as " This generation is now taking a seat at the table, or rather, they are demanding a seat at the table and a say in the way development choices that affect them are made." I agree this is the time the World Bank is much need for Engaging widely with youth and the different segments of the society not only Government officials. Because the Arab Spring proves that the street and mass people do change the rules, change their present and rewrite the policies of their own states. Hence, it is smart the Bank needs to listen more and be more responsive to the mass people The article /blog constitutes a smart and deep analysis and vision of the current situation , Looking forward to the next blog

Submitted by Nahed Sayed on
We read this with interest. We are a group of Georgetown students, with roots in the Middle East (most of us grew up there), we would like to be part of discussing the upcoming topics, and share our views. Our first thought when readig this is that although we like the idea of reaching out to the citizens in the Middle East we wonder how will the World Bank be able to show that it has actually taken the views of the citizens into consideration? Is there a way that you can show that you have actually contemplated out input and are rreflecting it in your work? We would be curious to know. This is our main reservation. However, we think that in theory and practice this is absolutely the way to go. To engage with the citizens rather than run off on its own, doing its own thing with only the governments interests in mind (government is not always representing the will of the people as we know). We hope that the World Bank can through this (1) ask the citizens what they think (2) influence the policy makers - while keeping the citizens wishes in mind. (3) put the food where the mouth is and also try to change its own World Bank practices bottom up (this initiative is a good start). Thank you.

Submitted by Hamza A. Sherif on
Thanks for sharing information about this initiative. The sentence in the article that resonated the most with me was: "Terminology such as “helping” and “aid” is becoming timeworn. It is more a matter of working alongside a generation that wants to be in charge of their own future." I'm glad that the World Bank seems to begin to acknowledge this. This new generation does not want aid. What we would like though, is to work alongside the World Bank as equals, to be able to capitalize upon the expertise and knowledge built up within this institution in order to help our own generation flourish, in order to strengthening the skills of our own experts. This being said: I do again acknowledge that the World Bank has a global knowledge that our countries could surely benefit from. For example within the field of education. It is obvious that there are many things that are not working within the Arab educational systems - this is an area that we could certainly benefit from the World Bank's expertise. But a word of caution - some of us have had our revolutions - please do work with this new generation that demanded change, and not the old foxes that are still around within the governmental systems. We will share what we think about the problems of youth unemployment once the next virtual forum is opened. Peace!

Submitted by Jamal X on
My friend commented above, and even though I agree with some of what she wrote I feel much more Sceptical. The young generation that demanded changes in their countries, want to break from the past and walk down a path that is in their countries interests. Our parents and their generation might have accepted World Bank loans left and right.. I think that the World Bank also is aware that they now have to cater to these young people since they will be the ones in charge (previously ignored by both our governments and the World Bank). This initiative might actually be what it states that it is, a genuine attempt to listen more to the people that will be affected by the projects. I hope this is the case I really do. But it is also possible that the WorldBank has realized that it has to do something to give the young a more positive impression of them. Good at least that you are allowing a discussion. That in itself is an improvement on the world banks side. I will also like to discuss unemployment.

Submitted by Minou on
I read this but honestly I don't know enough about the world bank to be either positive or critical.One thing I like to say though: regarding employment for the young in the Arab world. Many young want to start a business or they already have one but cannot make it formal or cannot reach bigger markets. It is complicated to figure out how to go about things, one-stop shops can help a lot. And letting the young know about the help that exist. Also simple courses for free, nothing advanced to learn. Have good day. Minou

Submitted by Zineb on
Two of my study friends commented above, they mostly wrote about the World Bank. I prefer to mention that its important for our young people to not only read books like robots, to learn by heart and then proof be thrown into the job market. In Europe and US, I like that students can do an internship to learn how it is to work to get more skills but in my university back home they will not let us do that - then we lose a semester. Can the World Bank work with universities and schools to change this and first make our government understand why to do this? When I went to the US for one year to study I also learnt more about this.

Submitted by Shadee Malaklou on
Many of you make interesting and noteworthy points here -- mainly about the "digital divide" that enables some Arab youth to access social networking websites and not others. It might be interesting to also consider how we can bring disenfranchised youth (Arab youth who do not live in cosmopolitan cities like Cairo, or have ready access to the internet) to the proverbial table; that is, to incorporate them into decision making, rather than to make the decisions for them. I think this is what author Amina Semlali is getting at: an ethics that would hold the West (and Western institutions like the World Bank) accountable to the people it claims to be helping. But, this might be a bigger project that the World Bank is willing to admit, or commit itself to.

Let me explain. If we look at the ledger of history, it quickly becomes apparent that the World Bank has consistently and unabashedly pursued its own interests (that is, Western interests, and the express interests of multi-national corporations), rather than carried out its supposed mission: to cater to "the actual development needs of recipient countries," as Cautiously Optimistic notes. We mustn't forget that the World Bank works to ensure the survival of a neoliberal and neocolonial world order. Stated another way, the World Bank, as an institution, works to ensure profit and efficiency (and power), not social needs. Loans offered by the World Bank are provided only under the condition that recipient countries "liberalize" trade, investment and finance, which includes the deregulation and privatization of industries perhaps better (that is, more ethically) run and managed by the local government.

To that end, I'd like to voice my solidarity with Jamal X, who writes in his comment, "The young generation that demanded changes in their countries [Arab youth] want to break from the past and walk down a path that is in their country's [best] interest." We may have to accept (and in fact, I hope this is the case) that what Arab youth identify as "good" for their country might mean nationalizing industry and, thus, calling the World Bank on its abuses, which it carries out under the innocuous banner of foreign "aid".

The World Bank, as it currently runs, allows us to keep under-developed countries perpetually underdeveloped – that is, in a perpetual state of want. Stated another way, by providing loans only under the guarantee that a recipient country open its industries to Western-run companies, the World Bank actually undercuts any efforts it claims to make to "help" people. The only “people” the World Bank has (thus far) helped is the people on Wall Street. Indeed, it’s no wonder why the Arab Spring (an international effort) has been compared to Occupy Wall Street (a domestic effort): both work to make money-makers accountable to the people they claim to be representing.

Which is to say, enabling Arab youth to share their opinions means that the World Bank may have to make itself open to changing its procedures, or to a "complete overhaul" as Cautiously Optimistic suggests. Such an overhaul would demand that the World Bank takes its stipulated mission at its word, and that it considers how actually helping the people in the Arab world (and demonstrating its solidarity with Arab youth, disenfranchised or otherwise) might mean providing funds without “conditions” – or at least, without conditions that benefit multi-national companies that prioritize profit, not social needs.

Submitted by Farid Atallah on
Salam alaikum, I am so happy to see you continue the youth work and the World Bank continu to work with youth. I hope you remember me?When you invited me to the panel many years ago with the minsiters from our coutries and one put us down and insulted us in the panel you directly defended the young peopls right to speak their mind and told the minsitre to be respectful to us the young and that we have the same rights. I will never forget this and this to us showed that the World Bank does not only support our government it supported us - the young - more than the old. I am now doing an internship in DC and hope I can be part also of these consultations. Also I think social media is the best way to reach as many as possible. Sincerely, Farid Atallah

Submitted by El Houcine Haichour on
Amina,this is a great initiative... I have been traveling across the region for some time now, and I have been amazed at how information and communication technologies have reshaped the region. Wireless broadband technologies have opened unprecedented development opportunities for youth even some of the remote places in some countries. Last year, I visited a small village (population < 300 people) in the East of Morocco called Taforghalt, and I was surprised to find out that most of youth in the village were on social networks. The small cybercafe was their gate to the world... For many youth in the region, the virtual world is not an extension of the real world, it has become the real world: this is where they make connections, study and learn, share ideas, mobilize for demonstration, and seek opportunities. Traditional brick-and-mortar institutions have been very slow to adapt to this "digital migration". I am pleased that the World Bank is leveraging technology to hear the voices of youth in the region to improve its development planning process, but I also think the World Bank needs to rethink its sectoral strategies so that youth are the actual change agents in its development programs during implementation.

Submitted by Sami Ghanem on
Very important topic in my opinion. It is wonderful that the World Bank is focusing on the young, rightfully so, as they are the future. Giving the youth in the MENA region a platform to discuss their aspirations, hopes and needs is not only great for the region but for the entire world.

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