Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The World Bank and the Outliers of Civil Society

It is hard to explain Civil Society, since much more than something physical it represents something spiritual; the will of an individual to participate in making our governments govern better and to make the world of his grandchildren a better place.

But, that said, it is also very easy to ascertain that some of the multinational corporate NGOs currently active in the name of the civil society, are absolutely not the same as that individual who, acting on his own or in a group, with little or no recourses, feels an urge to have his voice heard, convinced that he has something important to say.

For the sake of simplicity let us divide civil society in an organized strong civil society with voice, most of them originating in the developed countries, and the rest, quite unorganized, weak, with little international voice, most of them belonging to the developing countries. In this respect, the first question the World Bank must answer is whether it wants to be able to listen to the latter or not.

This is an issue because the truth is that the more attention is given to the voice of the strong developed-world-civil-society establishment, the harder it will be for the weak and outliers to have their voice heard, as the former could, would and will, tend to monopolize, hijack and direct the debate on development issues.

As an example of how civil-society might be captured answer the following: When the natural-resource-curse issue is discussed, how many resource-cursed-civil-society voices are effectively present, compared to the number of experts from natural-resource-consuming countries?

And, might the unrepresented-civil-society not have more voice at the Board of the World Bank, than what it has when it is represented by civil-society-with-voice?

And, who responds the best to the issue of genuine representation in a transparent an effective way, the World Bank or civil society?

And, the current financial crisis, specifically the fact that the IMF did not alert to it, is most often and best explained as a result of groupthink within the IMF. This is also evidenced by the fact that the simple truth of the crisis, is not allowed to surface, because it would so embarrass the Group. But, in this respect, does not the strong and represented developed-world-civil-society establishment act just like another mean and lean group-thinking machine?

I do not advance any answers, but those questions need to be raised, over and over again

In a closely related context, I am currently arguing for the need of a totally randomized web search engine, which could permit that the odd and unsupported opinions can now and again float to the surface of the web. As is, in the world of the Google and the Yahoos, the outliers are effectively drowned in the millions of sponsored-hits, or in the so many well intentioned most-probably-looked-for-by-the-searcher hits. I sincerely hope the World Bank does its best to keep a line open so as to at least give the outliers of civil society a chance to be heard.

Besides the alternative of the weak-unrepresented-civil-society organizing itself in the Group of The Outliers, how could World Bank help to establish any meaningful communications with it?

Again this is not an easy issue but, given the constraints, it probably must start by somehow limiting the current preferential access given to the communications with the organized civil-society establishment.

Any claim to transparency would for instance require that the World Bank posts a list of all the NGOs and persons who have been present during spring-and-fall-meetings over the last decade, indicating how many times and how many presentations they have hosted or co-hosted.

Modern communications could also be more intensively exploited. For instance there could be a website where all civil society participants around the world would know that they can post a question or give an opinion, and someone from the WBG will at least look at it. Those questions should be answered; or, if already answered, it should indicate where; or, if it cannot be currently answered, it should say so and preferably explain the reason why.

A group of WB professionals should then periodically prepare a summary of the opinions posted on the site above and present these to the Executive Directors. That summary should give special emphasis to the opinions considered as outliers, especially if substantially argued.

In conclusion what we least need if for the Global Partnership for Enhanced Social Accountability to end up like just another small and exclusive mutual admiration group, like the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision and the Financial Stability Board.

I do not wish to extend more this comment but I should perhaps explain that it is based on my experience as an Executive Director at the World Bank 2002-2004, and on my intensive participation as part of civil society thereafter… thanks to the support of a quite eclectic and thankfully not too bureaucratic organized civil-society NGO.