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Respectful, open, tuned in: the challenges of wise support to Arab Spring

Inger Andersen's picture
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This is the first week of my professional return to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Until last Friday I held the job of Vice President of the Sustainable Development network at the World Bank, a truly rich and fulfilling engagement in a range of global enterprises from agriculture, to infrastructure, to climate change.  I feel honored to assume the new role of MNA VP at this extraordinary time in the region’s history. Many eyes are on us and much will be expected.

As history unfolds before us, in the Arab Spring, in the uprisings, in the revolutions, I have reflected much on what this will mean and where it will take us.  I remain filled with optimism as people across the region have, in their own heartfelt formulation, “taken back their dignity”. But of course I also remain deeply concerned about the violence and the loss of life which continues still. The calls for genuine participation and a say in the decisions and policies that affect peoples’ lives have spread inspiration, spilling the spirit of protest across borders.  These are extraordinary times, but as we are all aware, there are still many unknowns ahead and many economic and social challenges remain; much work lies ahead to realize the dreams that have been unleashed by the Arab Spring.  

What I’m thinking hardest about in my new role is figuring out how we best engage this new spirit, support it, offer assistance. How to do this in appropriate measure without getting in the way of the historic social processes that are underway and to which we are but outsiders and observers, albeit passionate ones?  I join a team of professionals who have been working flat out to do just this. I trust some of my prior knowledge of the region and its complexities will help me as I join this group of dedicated colleagues. We need to be quick, responsive and flexible. And we also need to be thoughtful, respectful and open, tuned in acutely to changes happening faster than we may always know.

What the Arab Spring has taught many of us, I think, is that access to information, transparency, accountability and the ability of citizens to make their voices heard matter absolutely. At the World Bank, we can’t just help authorities in MENA put in place policies, laws and regulations. Those laws and regulations matter only if there is an opportunity for people to have a say about whether they are being properly applied, or indeed abused.

Finding ways to listen to our clients – and sometimes helping our clients listen to their citizens – will be critical to the usefulness of our work and any advice we offer. We might have knowledge as a global development institution. But we need to temper it with humility, and adapt it to changes in societies now redefining themselves, or our knowledge will be the dry rustle of a previously used blueprint.

I hope to use this blog as a thinking space about these challenges before us. And I hope you will join me in an exchange that feeds our knowledge, contests ideas and brings new ones to light.


Submitted by Motaz on
I wish you every success dear Ms. Anderson. But I have a comment or rather suggestion and that is to try in the coming period to look at an important topic which is "social peace" because in my opinion, society cannot reach justice and development, whether economic or political, without civil accord, and without building communication channels to take us to the next level. We know that reconciliation with the self first, then among the different parties is the safest way to build and elevate communities especially those that have lived under oppression.

Submitted by BP Agrawal on

Motaz, thank you for your insightful comment and for your good wishes. I do agree that social peace and stability is critical to development. At the World Bank we are working hard to listen and learn, and much work lies ahead to meet the aspirations unleashed by the Arab Spring. One of the most important messages I think everyone heard coming from the protests was the need for transparent flows of information and for citizens to be able to voice their opinion in meaningful ways. This public participation and, in response, the accountability of the authorities to the public, is a key dynamic in good governance, a subject we are addressing closely in our dialogue with governments. I link to a piece which I hope will give you further insight into our thinking. Obviously though, this cannot be a World Bank prescription but something which societies chose to build for themselves. Our goal is to try to be helpful in this regard, bringing examples of good governance practices from elsewhere in building institutions of accountability and openness. Please do continue to engage us with your comments and ideas.

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