Friday, October 10, 2014

Keeping it Civil at the World Bank

Photo Credit: World Bank
Today is my last day at the World Bank Civil Society Program in D.C. Even though I'll certainly have more to say about what I've learned here, I want to address what this series of meetings is about and the general tone here. My experience so far is that this current form of the communication between the World Bank and the public is keeping the "civil" in "civil discourse." It's civil in two ways: it's under control and respectful plus the participants are all representatives of civil society.

Just as a recap, here's my explanation of the term "civil society" from my previous blog, A New Course for the Big Ship of the World Bank, in case you missed it:
"What is civil society?" Not governments. Not corporations. The rest of us. Just regular folk. Sometimes it can mean a lot of people formally banded together in large groups called non-government organizations (NGO's) like CARE or Save the Children. It can refer to a community of local people with an interest in protecting their environment. It also includes a couple of socially-minded bloggers like me and my World Moms Blog buddy at the meetings, Jennifer Burden.
I've been to many Washington D.C. conferences and "summits" for anti-poverty NGOs...meetings set up for volunteers to learn about a topic and then lobby about it on Capitol Hill. I'm used to experts presenting information with infographics and talking points followed by the audience asking questions mainly to clarify understanding. Sometimes if the speaker is a member of Congress or the head of a government org, a questioner might ask a challenging question as a form of protest, but generally people just want more information from the presenters. After all, they are the experts and they know best..right?

Joseph Robertson of Citizen's Climate Lobby
weighs in at the World Bank Town Hall
Well, that's not really the way it goes at the World Bank. The Civil Society Program is certainly no PR conference. It's set up to be an interactive dialogue about policy. The attendees aren't hand selected by the World Bank nor are they volunteers. They are from watchdog groups, special interest NGO's, and citizens of countries impacted for better or worse by World Bank programs. Their common goal is to ensure the World Bank is actually doing it's job and ending poverty without harming the people it's trying to help. Here at this conference, experts still present powerpoint presentations, but there is a general tone in the audience that the experts do NOT necessarily know best and we need to give our input to shape their programs.

Is there tension here? You bet. But here's the thing. Real constructive communication is coming out of the conflict. Rather than having people yelling in the streets, the World Bank is inviting them inside for real conversation. Those conversations are often disagreements, but fairly productive ones without name-calling or threats. I find I learn more in the question portion of the sessions than the actual presentations. From a mom perspective, my blogging partner Jennifer Burden mused that our children learn by arguing and these disagreements seem to be serving an educational purpose for both sides. The World Bank continually stresses that they want to hear our dissenting viewpoints to make their policies better and this audience is more than happy to oblige. At the same time, all of us are learning about World Bank's side of the story as well as gaining the perspective of citizens from other countries we otherwise might not get to talk to in person.

A Ugandan grandmother
The issues of poverty (starvation, child mortality, poor education, gender inequality, Ebola, etc) are truly life vs. death subjects that are hitting the delegates from developing nations hard and personally. Everybody there knows there are tears and suffering of real people behind every infographic map of poverty metrics. Delegates speak with passion and urgency, but also with respect and control. I wish this kind of civil debate were more common in U.S. Congress a few miles away.

At the TedX-WBG presentations, Raphael Parente of LABi said: "If we want the world to change, we have to think and act differently." In this case, "we" means both the World Bank and civil society members. In the Civil Society Program we are are changing by challenging each other. Change isn't likely to happen if everybody just smiles and nods while millions struggle to survive. I find myself thinking about a particular woman I met at a health care event in rural Uganda on a trip with the Shot@Life campaign. She appreciated the vaccines UNICEF was providing, but was focused and serious as she related other problems they faced like HIV/AIDS and lack of quality education for her children and grandchildren. As a fellow mom, I feel like I owe it to her to add my voice here to challenge, listen, and change our world for the better.

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.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A New Course for the Big Ship of the World Bank

Citizens of countries gathered to offer polite yet pointed criticisms
to World Bank Executive Directors.
Yesterday, I stated here that I wanted to find out what is happening with World Bank reform to make it work better for people in poverty and what civil society groups currently think about it. Well, after a full day of civil society meetings, I certainly got a lot of information as NGO groups and affected citizens converged en mass to the World Bank (the world's largest provider of loans, grants, and financial services to governments with the objective to end poverty) to each give their own answer to those questions. I can conclusively depends on who you ask.

Before we go any further, let's address the question, "What is civil society?" Not governments. Not corporations. The rest of us. Just regular folk. Sometimes it can mean a lot of people formally banded together in large groups called non-government organizations (NGO's) like CARE or Save the Children. It can refer to a community of local people with an interest in protecting their environment. It also includes a couple of socially-minded bloggers like me and my World Moms Blog buddy at the meetings, Jennifer Burden. Civil society groups play many roles such as service providers, experts, advocates, and even "watchdog groups" that report to the public when something goes amiss. Generally, these groups closely represent the people in poverty who the World Bank seeks to help.

I have met civil society members from many different countries who offer damning critique of the World Bank. I've also talked to some who feel the World Bank is generally moving in the right direction...although slowly than they'd like.
My observation is that the World Bank is indeed setting a new course with a good captain at the helm. However, it's a really, really big ship to turn and it has to take time.
In recent years, we've seen new structures put in place under the leadership of Dr. Jim Kim. In between Dr. Kim and people struggling in poverty are layers of bureaucracy and history to overcome. Dr. Kim has taken on quite an aggressive agenda which isn't very popular for some staff members. Even as we sat in the meetings yesterday, Dr. Kim faced criticisms from his own staff - furious about cost-cutting reforms - reported by the Financial Times. At this point, he's 2 years into a five-year term. Can he make enough progress in his reform agenda to create a World Bank with the best interest of poor people at heart AND be renewed for another term? Can he do it even with all the internal opposition from those who prefer to keep things status quo? Well, we did ask a similar question about U.S. President Obama and he was elected for four more years!

Sharmila Karki from NGO Federation of Nepal
asks a question of World Bank staff
Despite the mixed reviews by civil society representatives, this year's meetings are still much smaller and more genteel/civil/controlled than street protests in prior years. Nowadays, the formerly rowdy civil society public is invited inside and sometimes quite literally given a place at the table of the World Bank. Even if they are outraged, representatives from many countries can now come to give voice to their concerns without yelling at a closed window (in fact, we were amused that we could hear joyful non-meeting related street music coming through the windows at one session). I think that 's a major improvement and most would agree that it's better to have a seat with a microphone than be chanting at a building.

Change is not going to be quick for the World Bank and the countries it serves. Eliminating corruption, engaging civil society in 100% of new projects, protecting the environment, and cutting costs are all going to take time. The best thing we - members of civil society - can find it is to keep the pressure on them and help them do it no matter how long it takes!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

World I come!

Today, I'm flying to DC to stretch my metaphorical wings as a blogger and an activist. I've been invited by the World Bank to attend the civil society meetings preceding the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Who would have thought in 2004 that this stay at home mom struggling to make a difference in the world would be a sponsored guest of the World Bank 10 years later?

My daughters and I with World Bank president Dr. Jim Kim
It started with a blog post I wrote this summer for World Moms Blog - "What the World Needs to Know About the World Bank" - after meeting World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim at the 2014 RESULTS conference. A representative at the World Bank liked how I reported his speech in simple, plain-spoken terms. She reached out to invite me to their Civil Society Program, which has a goal to promote dialogue and exchange of views between Bank staff, civil society representatives, government officials, academics and other stakeholders. I guess now you can add "mom bloggers" to that list of stakeholders!

I'm attending with my friend Jennifer Burden who is a fellow Shot@Life champion and the founder of World Moms Blog.  As bloggers, Jen and I will represent everyday moms who want to create a better world for our children. Our assigned mission is to 1) Live tweet the sessions to help spread word in real time about World Bank activities 2) Blog about the content of the meetings and 3) Consider how everyday people like us might constructively be involved with the World Bank moving forward.

Hooray!...and uh oh! Generally, when I blog about global poverty I work from fact sheets and summaries published by trusted organizations like Bread for the World or the UN Foundation. I take their summaries and put it in the context of my experience as a suburban American mom. This week, I'll be getting information unfiltered and straight from the source. I hope I can keep up! :)

But nevermind all that. I'm nothing if not a thorough student. I've dutifully picked up two books to help me get some perspective of what I'm about to see. "A Guide to the World Bank" is a publication put out by the World Bank itself. "50 Years is Enough: The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund"was written in 1994 by critics of the World Bank during an era when large protests accompanied every annual meetings. Here are some preliminary observations from my reading:

My prior understanding of the World Bank was a tad simplistic. I had been thinking about the World Bank as one entity. In fact, the World Bank Group is made up of five institutions with different tasks. Only two of them are actually known as the World Bank: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) which lends to governments of middle-income or creditworthy low-income countries and the International Development Association (IDA) which provides interest-free loans and grants to the poorest countries. The graphic to the side lists all the World Bank Group orgs and their functions.

The World Bank Group really does have a confusing alphabet soup of programs, organizations, and committees. It's not just me. The IBRD, IDA, IFC, MIGA, and ICSID? Here's my favorite committee name I found in the Guide: "Joint Ministerial Committee of the Boards of the Bank and Fund on the Transfer of Real Resources to Developing Countries." What? Couldn't get one more prepositional phrase in that title? Wow.

The Millennium Development Goals are a centerpiece of World Bank strategy. Whew! This is a relief because I have been lobbying about these goals for years now. Knowing that they set the Bank Group's  priorities and provide targets for measuring results gives me reassurance that I know where they are headed and that I'm on board with it.

It's not just WHAT the World Bank says it's going to do. HOW they do it is at least - if not more-important. The World Bank was formed in 1944 after World War II to help with the recovery of Europe. It's had a mission to combat poverty for many, many years. However, with the sheer amount of money they have to disperse as loans, the projects can be massive in scope. This is great when projects have the best interests of impoverished people at heart and terrible if they are misguided. Spiderman knows that "with great power comes great responsibility." Well...with great sums of money comes great responsibility as well and it is the civil society groups that make sure the World Bank Group is fulfilling their responsibility.

Past criticisms of the World Bank were a lot harsher than I realized. Here are a few gems from the essays in the "50 Years is Enough" book. "When the Banks projects go wrong, they go wrong on a disastrous scale, causing massive social and environmental ruin." " least 6 million children under 5 years of age have died each year since 1982 in Africa, Asia, and Latin America because of the anti-people, even genocidal, focus of the World Bank SAPs." Yikes!

I am a part of this whole picture as well. Within the five areas of reform, I found the goal of "increasing transparency, accountability, and access to information." The World Bank Group seeks to share its global knowledge and experience with a wide audience and to enhance the quality of its operations by providing more information about projects and programs than ever before. Making information and projects more comprehensible to a wider audience...that sounds like something I might be able to help with from my own kitchen table.

So, now that I've armed myself with a little more knowledge. Here are the questions I'm heading to DC with:
  • Fifteen years ago, the civil society organizations I know and respect were criticizing the World Bank and calling for its elimination. What happened that has reversed the protests? Has real reform happened?
  • What do various civil society groups think about World Bank programs now?
  • Do developing countries feel they have adequate say in World Bank policies and procedures?
  • What is the mood of the World Bank and civil society groups as the Millennium Development Goal deadlines looms closer?
  • How can regular, everyday activists like me connect with the World Bank in a way that is comprehensible to us? Do we have a role we can play?
So, wish me luck and follow me on Twitter (@ccylevin) to see what I'm up to. Comment here or tweet me with questions to which you'd like me try to find an answer!