As rapid innovation and adoption of new communications technology sweeps across the globe, one thing is certain: the trend for increasing demand from citizens to have a greater say in public projects. It’s an opportunity and a challenge, depending on how you look at it. The World Bank can do more to step up to the challenge of managing this kind of complexity more smartly. Typically, we are seeing disputes relating to land, water and governance issues. These trends are not going away. So what can we do about it? Well the short answer is—plenty.
“We are witnessing this incredible transformation in the Middle East and North Africa region that is still unfolding,” said Inger Andersen, the World Bank’s vice president for the Middle East and North Africa Region, speaking at an event on innovations for resolving disputes in development  in Washington.
“It is a different reality now,” said Andersen. “Hearing the peoples’ voice inside the programs and projects is a major breakthrough for us. The work we are now doing in the region is reaching millions via Twitter, Facebook, and social media outlets. It is a real challenge to ride on the transparency wave across the region while adhering to our policies at the Bank.”
As the evolving change process within the Bank Group focuses on how it can take smarter risks to achieve transformational results, Bank teams will also need to incorporate ways to better engage citizens, anticipate problems and resolve disputes.
“Achieving the World Bank Group goals of eradicating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity, while ensuring economic, social, and environment sustainability is a challenge,” said Kyle Peters, the Bank’s vice president for Operations Policy and Country Services. “It involves our teams handling transformational projects and taking risks. This entails support to countries that incorporates problem solving—including mediation and facilitation—more quickly and flexibly where it is needed most.”
The Dispute Resolution and Prevention unit (DRP)  was established to lead the Bank’s approach to predicting, preventing and addressing disputes in projects, and to help bring a more problem-solving focus to the work the Bank does.
So far, the DRP team has focused on working with project teams to catch issues early, building on existing capacity in the countries where the Bank operates, and bringing independent, neutral third parties to help resolve contentious issues. One approach has been to encourage more effective use of grievance redress mechanisms (GRMs) on projects to more systematically address issues. A recent survey shows positive results – between 2008 and 2012 the proportion of new projects in the Bank’s portfolio using GRMs jumped from 28% to 69%.
There is tremendous experience both in the public and private sector, so the Bank doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. “In India, a lot of the work we are doing is about preventing things from going out of hand because the costs of resolution are far greater than the costs we would have in the process of prevention,” said Dr. Mihir Shah member of the Indian government’s Planning Commission.
Shah said India’s focus on the imperatives of infrastructure development, industrialization, and urbanization has led to conflicts over land, water, and natural resources. He noted the large segments of the population who feel a sense of not being sufficiently included in what has been a great success story of growth and development.
“[Putting in place grievance mechanisms] takes time and resources, but it provides a greater opportunity to avoid conflicts and also to foster a sense of inclusion among the people,” he said.
From the global prospective, Professor Larry Susskind, founder of the Consensus Building Institute and Director of MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program spoke about the conditions needed to support problem solving in the field. Susskind identified five things he thinks are needed to make problem solving work in big institutions like the World Bank.
- An institution has to empower its people on the front line to engage in problem solving and make decisions.
- Staff must be allowed to “invent without committing” by creating the space for innovation to allow for “what if…” (i.e.: “What if I did this? Would it solve your problems?”).
- We must allow for the parties to develop unique solutions for each case. If the institution can’t imagine doing things differently and keeping away from every case becoming a precedent, then it can’t do dispute resolution.
- Independent, third-party mediators can be brought in, particularly to resolve precedent problem identified above. Staff can’t be neutral in many disputes.
- Staff that commit to dispute resolution must be acknowledged, supported and rewarded. “Make a big deal internally and externally of the successes and reward their people,” said Susskind.
Photo Credit: Man with cell phone, Arne Hoel / World Bank 
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