Having worked with civil society engagement work at the World Bank for many years, it is not uncommon for colleagues to see me in the hallway and jokingly ask: “is civil society still acting uncivil?”. The assumption being that when Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) criticize the Bank they are not being constructive and thus not acting civil. While I understand the good-natured ribbing, I and most of my Bank colleagues actually believe the opposite is true. Most advocacy CSOs are being effective global citizens by monitoring the policies and programs of governments and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank. After all, governments and multilateral development Banks serve at the behest of citizens and thus they should welcome a watchful eye from CSOs, media, and citizen organizations to ensure that its taxpayer-generated international development funds are being well spent. In addition, as Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently said at the closing plenary of the 2013 InterAction Forum, important changes and reforms in history – such as the concerted response to the AIDS epidemic – are often driven by citizen activism spearheaded by CSOs. He further argued that what is now needed is a global citizens’ movement to advocate for effective climate change policies.
The World Bank wants to speed up. To meet the needs of clients and find new solutions to development challenges its appetite for taking risks must change. Accountability mechanisms, like the Inspection Panel, are often accused of causing staff to become risk averse – of slowing down the speed. The Panel has been set up to give people affected by Bank-supported projects an avenue for raising their concerns, knowing that the complaint will be handled by a body independent of those who man age the project. We call it citizen-driven accountability. Does this slow down speed or does it allow for speeding up because it improves the braking system? Fast cars need good brakes.
The answer is not simply one or the other. The Panel has stated on several occasions that it recognizes risk-taking is an essential part of development work, and that the Bank needs to be able to take the risks that go along with innovation, and venture into challenging circumstances where risks and potential rewards may be high. Effective safeguard policies provide means to identify and manage risks, which at times may slow down speed and rightly so. At the same time, citizen-driven accountability helps to enable risk-taking by providing a safety net for affected people in the event that risks materialize.
There is increasing convergence between the goals that human rights advocates aspire to, and the development work of the World Bank. This was the consensus reached at a panel discussion on Integrating Human Rights in PREM's work, organized as part of the Conference organized by the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) network on May 1 and 2, 2012. The panel included Otaviano Canuto, Vice President of the Network, and other experts at the Bank working on labor, justice, poverty, and governance issues from a rights-perspective. It was moderated by Linda van Gelder, Director of the Public Sector and Governance group.
The panel showcased innovative ways in which a human rights perspective is being integrated into the Bank's work. In Vietnam, the governance team has engaged the country in looking at how right to information can further transparency and how awareness of rights can make the state more responsive to citizens. A team in PREM is looking at the Human Opportunity Index as a means of assessing inequality of opportunity among children. The World Development Report on Jobs emphasizes the concept of ‘better jobs’ that improve societal welfare, not just ‘more jobs’. Several of these programs are supported through the Nordic Trust Fund that furthers a human rights approach to development issues.