Operators of a joint account

The World Bank and Non-Governmental Organisations
May 22, 1998

This book is of great interest as cooperative and conflicting interaction grows between the World Bank and non-governmental organisations.

The increasingly common contact between networks of NGOs and the Bank, with NGOs seeking to influence the Bank and with the Bank seeking the help of NGOs in mitigating the adverse social costs of structural adjustment, inevitably brings about a reshaping of NGOs through their involvement with World Bank programmes and practice. Collaboration between the Bank and NGOs is the setting, as the book says, for "an important debate over the shape and direction of development".

The World Bank's 1990 annual report pointed to the increasing number of World Bank-financed projects that have involved the collaboration of NGOs and reported a "deepening" of these operational relationships with NGOs frequently involved in the design as well as the implementation of projects and programmes. This involvement has important implications for pressing policy issues and for the theoretical debates that underlie them.

This book suggests the World Bank and NGOs can be thought of as opposite poles of a continuum of organisations involved in development assistance. The many ways in which their operations differ have been seen as presenting formidable challenges to collaboration as well as revealing complementary strengths, exemplifying the reasons for cooperation.

Notwithstanding the differences pointed out in this book, some at the Bank and a few NGOs have thought it worthwhile to try collaboration, with varied results. The Bank remains the leading sponsor of orthodox, export-oriented adjustment and debt-management policies: its internal review of lending performance relies on financial appraisal as the central indicator of programmatic success. Its critics, including many NGOs, have doubted the sincerity of its professed commitment to the environmental and social issues.

Meanwhile, NGOs' tendencies to process-oriented programming, emphasis on participation and partisanship in support of poor people can be seen as conflicting with the interests of the Bank.

Nonetheless, it is these very contrasting features of NGOs that have encouraged the case for collaboration. Involvement with the Bank allows NGOs to exert pressure for reforms in environmental policy, changes in policy, freer access to information and channels for complaints about Bank-financed projects.

This book assesses whether the hopes and expectations of observers have been justified by cooperation. It reports on extensive research into Bank/NGO relations, together with a review of policy changes in the 1970s and 1980s.

To this end, the author brings considerable experience of being an activist/researcher in Washington involved in advocacy for more than seven years. He points to some of the organisational features that have resisted change, the protective organisational myth of apolitical development and a hierarchical and insular information management system.

Several questions are posed by the author. What are we to make of the World Bank's commitments to refocus on poverty and environmental protection? How do its mandate, organisational form and financial and intellectual resources dispose it to address the changing world of globalised production and capital, weakened national governments and degraded natural resources? How does NGO engagement with the Bank affect NGOs' role in developing articulate and representative institutions in civil society?

This study's findings are not optimistic. It suggests that the organisational characteristics that hinder successful collaboration are deeply rooted, reflecting the Bank's mandate and the interests of its powerful members and of financial markets. Although involvement with NGOs can exert pressure for reform on several of these organisational traits, the degree of movement at any of these key pressure points has been disappointingly small.

NGOs' agendas, strategies and impact, on the other hand, have been "inconsistent and uneven". Policy concessions may be achieved, but this is of little use if NGOs lack the political and institutional clout to secure their implementation.

There will be little more progress unless efforts are expanded and coordinated. Nonetheless, the Bank's engagement with NGOs has been in some ways innovative and has been characterised by a degree of pragmatic informality that has involved willingness to allow some experimentation. It has "not stifled a small but energetic internal effort to encourage greater access".

Vandana Desai is a lecturerin development studies at the department of geography,Royal Holloway, University of London.

The World Bank and Non-Governmental Organisations: The Limits of Apolitical Development

Author - Paul Nelson
ISBN - 0 312 12620 4
Publisher - St Martin's Press
Price - £47.50
Pages - 249

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