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Risk and Accountability: What Role for the Inspection Panel?

Alf Jerve's picture

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.

For an institution whose vision is a world free from poverty, it is important to consider the question of risk to whom. The need for risk-taking in development work does not mean that risk should be transferred disproportionately to local people or the environment in which they live. The Bank’s safeguard policies are designed to help avoid this result, and the Panel process provides recourse for affected communities to help ensure that this is not the case. An important contribution of the Panel over many years is exactly to identify risks that may have been underestimated or not addressed. And, importantly, a main purpose of the Panel process is to lead to a proper organizational response with results for the affected people, especially those who are vulnerable and often marginalized in development processes. This also protects the reputation of the Bank.

The Panel recognizes the challenges faced by the Bank in its operations. Compliance with policies is not just black or white. In its reports, the Panel gives credit to the institution where due, highlights the challenges it faces, and puts on record statements of appreciation by affected people and communities for positive efforts and engagement of the Bank. The Panel also recognizes that both the Bank and its borrowers have changed since the creation of the Panel in 1993. A possible causal relation between the Bank’s application of its policies and adverse impacts on people or the environment, which is the underlying premise of a Panel investigation, is less obvious in the emerging context of more programmatic loans, more co-financing with other donors, and a greater share of financing from the client country. Risks for affected people and the environment, however, remain. The Panel is one of the main pillars of accountability for the Bank in the context of such risks. How to ensure the continued role of citizen-driven accountability in light of evolving operational models built on enhanced partnerships and leveraging of resources is an important part of the risk management discourse.

About the Inspection Panel: The Inspection Panel is an independent complaints mechanism for people who believe that they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project. The Panel provides for accountability through assessment of Bank's compliance with operational policies. The process is designed to provide redress to affected people and address issues of policy non-compliance and harm.

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