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.

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