The World Bank has long been confronted with studies documenting the harmful impact of its policies. Normally Bank officials dismiss these critical reports out of hand. But they find it more difficult to challenge the validity of the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) because the Bank itself was a full partner in its design and implementation. The damning conclusions of its final report are therefore all the more embarrassing.
In the late 1990s the World Bank, under its new President, James Wolfensohn, undertook several initiatives to engage critics in civil society. A familiar pattern emerged from endeavours like the World Commission on Dams. Cheery press releases publicized the launch of each new ‘partnership’, emphasizing the institution’s willingness to work co-operatively with its detractors. Official enthusiasm then waned markedly when the initiatives began to suggest that policy-as-usual was unacceptable. SAPRI was the most thoroughgoing of these engagements.
It began in 1996, when non-governmental organizations that had been challenging the Bank negotiated with its management to find a way of evaluating structural adjustment programmes. Ultimately, it was agreed to conduct joint multi-year investigations in Bangladesh, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Hungary, Mali, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
Delays and intransigence
The process was designed to solicit the perspectives of those affected by Bank policy and incorporate public participation in policy discussions.
‘We saw this as an opportunity to help mobilize and strengthen civil society regardless of the Bank’s response and to hold the Bank accountable,’ says Doug Hellinger, global co-ordinator of the extensive network of grassroots organizations that became known as SAPRIN. Early in the process, difficulties emerged as governments and Bank officials realized that it was unlikely to reflect well on the policies they had implemented. El Salvador’s government went so far as to back out of the review.
Interacting with Bank officers, SAPRIN members encountered delays and intransigence. In one instance, the Bank refused, until challenged, to release approximately $200,000 that had been donated to the network by a European government. When the time came for the final presentation of the SAPRI findings, Bank leaders shied away from the major public event to which it had originally committed. Wolfensohn even failed to show up for a smaller roundtable discussion. Lidy Nacpil, who represents the Philippines’ Freedom from Debt Coalition on the SAPRIN steering committee, argued at the time: ‘It is clear that the Bank is incapable, for political and bureaucratic reasons, to hear, much less respond to, the insights and priorities of people around the world affected by its policies.’
The Bank once again demonstrated, this time quite publicly, that it isn’t about to change course, regardless of the evidence
After nearly a year of ignoring the findings, media attention on the report forced Wolfensohn back to the table in 2002. In subsequent meetings he acknowledged the findings as ‘important’ and ‘legitimate’ – yet he and his institution have since failed to alter their policies in response.
‘I wouldn’t say we were hopeful, but SAPRIN was willing to take a chance given the critical importance of the issue,’ says Hellinger. ‘In the end, the Bank once again demonstrated, this time quite publicly, that it isn’t about to change course, regardless of the evidence.’
In past years, Wolfensohn and other Bank leaders have denounced demonstrators gathering outside their meetings as irresponsible and unwilling to listen, while arguing that ‘in fact there are many serious organizations with whom we are having a continuous interface’. The SAPRIN organizations, many of which have been leaders in the protests, never accepted this division. Nevertheless, their work in the review shows that ‘serious’ attempts at constructive engagement have not convinced the World Bank to alter its behaviour, and that publicly denouncing the institution’s illegitimacy remains the only option open to those hurt by its policies.
‘There’s no question any more that these policies don’t work,’ says Hellinger. ‘SAPRIN did the Bank a favour. It took their people to another level and showed them a disturbing truth. It also demonstrated how mechanisms could be created through which more appropriate policies could emerge from the knowledge and priorities of the people themselves. We were even willing to give them a second chance when Wolfensohn returned to the table. But they’re simply not willing, or able, to act.’
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