Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Different View of Citizen Engagement at the World Bank

I am an engaged citizen. As a volunteer lobbyist with RESULTS, I contact my members of Congress regularly. I phone the White House occasionally. My children and I often write letters to the editor publicly urging my elected officials to action. On special days, I even drive a few miles from my house to my U.S. representative's office to speak to her staff in person about global poverty. It's exciting and it's important, but...let's be really doesn't have a huge impact on my schedule, my income, or my safety.

Here at the World Bank, however, I'm learning that the words "citizen engagement" can mean something similar in theory, but quite different in the context of how people living in extreme poverty engage with the World Bank and their governments. For too long, World Bank projects tried to reduce poverty without inviting the opinions of the people it sought to help. That led to misguided and ineffective efforts. To create successful projects, the World Bank of today is actively reaching out to engage stakeholders in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of projects as well as in communication with governments and World Bank executive directors.

Faith Nwadishi & Dr. Jim Kim
Citizen engagement in World Bank projects: World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim has set a firm and ambitious goal for 100% of World Bank projects to have input from people who benefit from them by 2018. Currently, there is only 36% involvement with beneficiary feedback. Yet he is determined to increase participation because the active voice of citizens changes the quality of development and outcomes. Local people very much want to give this input. Faith Nwadishi from Nigeria said to Dr. Kim, "If my shoe is pinching me, I can tell you exactly where it is hurting" in a metaphor about how local people have the best knowledge about local problems.

Citizen engagement in government relations: The experience of lobbying government officials can differ wildly from country to country. I heard a story of a World Bank rep in Columbia asking local women to engage in holding their government accountable. At the end of her talk, a woman stood up and said, "Hello, Madame. At least they don't kill us." These women were happy just to be alive. Having a government that didn't murder people was an improvement. Based on their traumatic history as victims, getting more involved was not a priority for them and - in fact - could be dangerous. On the other hand, in Sierra Leone, a representative was talking to youth engaged in anti-corruption actions with their government. He asked them, "Why are you doing this? Why are you rattling the cage?" They replied, "Never again. We have seen suffering because of corruption and we are determined that will never happen again." Those very different stories show that the World Bank must consider the personal experience of locals in order to know how to engage them best.

Citizen engagement with World Bank executive directors: For regular folks in civil society, executive directors overseeing various regions of the world are kind of like our representatives within the World Bank. They are the people who citizens need to lobby if things are not going right. However, it's really hard for the poorest people on the planet to contact them when the World Bank executive directors work out of Washington D.C. most of the time. Even when the directors do travel to their assigned regions, it's still difficult for subsistence farmers to leave their fields for a lobby visit. People struggling in extreme poverty stand to benefit the most from citizen engagement. They also have the most to lose from time away from their labor. Structure for citizen engagement should be designed in a way that people can be involved at all. For instance, the World Bank may have to give incentives to compensate for work time lost.

The World Bank wants and needs to do all it can to support citizen engagement. Civil society organizations should to step in to represent local people, too. Citizen engagement is about more than a technical aspect of the World Bank. It's about empowering people to guide their own futures and bringing us closer to our collective dream of a world without poverty.

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