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A New Social Contract with Civil Society?

John Garrison's picture

The recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East served as the backdrop for a major speech given by Bank President Robert Zoellick on the emerging role of civil society.  The speech, The Middle East and North Africa: A New Social Contract for Development given at Washington’s Peterson Institute on April 6, may well mark a watershed in Bank – civil society relations.  He stated that “now it may be time to invest in the private, not-for-profit sector – civil society -- to help strengthen the capacity of organizations working on transparency, accountability, and service delivery.”  Mr. Zoellick further said that “in one way or the other, a modernized multilateralism needs to recognize that investments in civil society and social accountability will be as important to development in the Middle East and beyond as investments in infrastructure, firms, factories, or farms.” 

A quick review of World Bank history shows that as the Bank realized in 1956 that it needed to partner with the private sector in order to promote economic growth in developing countries, it established the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to invest in companies.  The Bank may be in a similar historic juncture regarding the indispensable role civil society plays in promoting social development, environmental protection, and good governance worldwide, and realizes that it must now engage civil society as it did the private sector earlier.

In some ways, Mr. Zoellick formally recognized what the Bank has learned over the past several decades.  As he stated, “a robust civil society can check on budgets, seek and publish information, challenge stifling bureaucracies, protect private property, and monitor service delivery.”  The Bank learned, for instance, that international and local NGOs play an indispensable role in disaster recovery by partnering with them in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. The Bank realized that the most effective way to combat HIV/AIDS at the community level is to involve local civil society, and for this reason the Bank has channeled over $400 million dollars to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in 28 African countries through its Multi-Country AIDS Program (MAP).   More recently it has learned that by supporting such CSO-led instruments as participatory budgeting, citizens score cards, and budget tracking, it can help to promote better governance and improved government services.    

While it is difficult to know what policy and programmatic changes this speech will usher in, it is clear that CSOs have already taken note.  Sam Worthington, the head of InterAction, stated that “the speech was a real breakthrough for us in the NGO world”.   “Mr. Zoellick said what we have known all along, that when civil society groups participate in the design, monitoring and management of public services, budgets are better used and there is less corruption.”  There is growing consensus that the Bank has advanced significantly in the openness and quality of its policy dialogue and consultation with civil society.  What this speech seems to reflect is the realization that what is needed now is a scaling up of its operational collaboration with CSOs.  Whether this will result in greater CSO involvement in projects at the country level or even new funding mechanisms is difficult to predict, but it is likely that we will look back at Zoellick’s  speech as an important milestone in the Bank’s evolving relations with civil society.

Photo Credit: © Simone D. McCourtie /World Bank (on Flickr)

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With recognition of the role of the civil society from the World Bank President, Mr. Robert Zoellick, I think it is a consecration of the work of honest civil society organizations around the world. While we hope the World Bank should move swiftly and develop programs on how to effectively involve the civil society in good governance projects especially in the fight against corruption, I must underscore the point that a lot more still remains to be done in building the capacities of African civil society groups on what it really means to be non profit making NGOs and on transparent management. This is because, most of the groups claiming to be non profit NGOs on the continent are really profit making groups. To say the least, my experience in Cameroon shows that in most cases the so called civil society is as corrupt as the government. They are the least transparent in terms of activity and financial reports. At worst corruption in the NGO business in Cameroon and Africa is done with the complicity of some Western donors.

Submitted by John on
Afanyi, Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that civil society has challenge related to improving its capacity in many areas such as project management, fundraising, and engaging governments. The World Bank has supported a number of CSO capacity-building initiatives over the years. While I also agree with you that CSOs also need to improve their transparency and accountability, and while I don't know the situation in Cameroon, I feel that governments and international organizations such as the World Bank have a higher standard to reach in the areas of transparency and accountability because they are public in nature. There are, however, a number of important civil society initiatives in these areas such as the Global Transparency Initiative (GTI), Global Accountability Report, and InterAction's PVO Standards, which you might want to check out. John

Submitted by Aubrey Davis on
While I commend President Zoellick for bringing this to the forefront of Bank staff's minds, this is about a decade late. The Bank has been far too slow to realize that a dialogic approach to development more often leads to more effective, pointed projects, quicker adoption of new technologies, more efficient spending, and faster results. Many non-profit organizations and CSOs have been practicing this concept for years. I believe the Bank could have been faster at adopting this position if it placed more emphasis on dialogue between local staff in country offices and headquarters. There should be communications staff in the country offices whose sole job is civil society and community engagement. And this dialogue should be ongoing and systematized. There is so much to learn from the people whom we are serving, and we should be working harder to access that knowledge and integrate it into our work.

Submitted by John on
Aubrey, Thanks for your comment. Having worked with promoting greater WB - CSO collaboration for 15 years, I agree with you that scaling up these relations are long overdue as collaboratoin can only benefit the development outcomes of governments, civil society, and donor agencies such as the Bank. Bank studies have shown that each actor can bring comparative advantages to the table and make development efforts more cost-effective. Having worked in the Bank's Office in Brasilia for five years, I also agree that the most effective engagement between the WB and CSOs should occur at the country level. The Bank does have civil society focal points based in most country offices, but the intensity and breadth of that engagement varies among countries depending on local context. My expectation that Mr. Zoellick's speech will intensify this country-level engagement. John

Submitted by Anonymous on
John, glad to see this, but we need a drastic scaling up of this approach. In many parts of the world - such as in mine (Pakistan) - working with civil society is a requirement for our work. To see the Bank finally institutionalizing this approach is heartening. Good luck!

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