The Arab openness revolution – Can the World Bank keep up?

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The Arab world was a center of intellectual fervor and scientific discovery when my forefathers in Northern Europe were a rather backward people raiding neighbors and toiling for the King.  Over time the tables turned and the last several decades in the Arab world were a period of political control, few basic freedoms and widespread exclusion. 

Meanwhile people in other parts of the world enjoyed increasing freedoms and an information and media revolution making information accessible to more and more people. Now, almost overnight, millions of Arab citizens have joined this global table of exchange and openness.  Twitters, facebook posts and blogs are buzzing around the Arab world with new-found freedom and excitement. 

I have just seen this first hand visiting Tunisia.  Every evening a minister is interviewed on TV and viewers call in with their own questions.  One minister refused to refer to recent events in Tunisia as “a revolution” on TV and was forced out the next day.  There were probably other reasons for his ouster, but the impact of media was striking. Frankly, it used to be that watching TV or reading online magazines in Tunisia was a rather dull affair; stories were clearly manipulated.  Once, before the revolution, I was part of a Tunisian TV panel discussion. The journalist was so worried about what this strange foreigner might say that he kept reminding my Tunisian colleague accompanying me that I shouldn’t say anything negative about the President.  I jokingly said not to worry, if I said something inappropriate, they could just have the simultaneous Arabic translation “correct” my words.  The journalist paled even further and did not laugh. I had clearly touched a nerve.  When I was in Tunisia this time, it was completely different, in fact it was the inverse: journalists wanted to talk us, wanted to know what we thought about the situation, what we were going to do to help the interim government.  Now it was the Bank that was worried, the Bank that held back.

I share these reflections today to challenge myself and my colleagues to follow the lead of the Arab peoples and be more open. Let’s stop censoring ourselves, let’s use the new media to enter the debate and share our views, even if they are incomplete. World Bank individuals are actually not secretive, but perhaps scared of saying what we think before we are comfortable we’re right.  That is what this blog is all about!  This is our chance to speak up, to be heard, to debate issues and to show the openness in practice that we preach in theory.

And by the way, there is always an Arabic translator who can check up on what we write – Just joking!!!

Let the blogging begin.

Authors

Steen Jorgensen

Sector Director for Human Development