Checking Out The Bank

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EXPERTS [image, unknown] World Bank in Bangladesh

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Checking out the Bank
Getting aid to the poor isn't easy. But many donors are still reluctant to admit when their projects aren't working. Betsy Hartmann and Jim Boyce investigated a World Bank project in Bangladesh but had little success in getting `the professionals' to face facts.

'An important testing ground for the World Bank's `basic needs' strategy'. Photo: Nick Fogden / OXFAM
'An important testing ground for the World Bank's `basic needs' strategy'. Photo: Nick Fogden / OXFAM

FOREIGN aid is big business in Bangladesh: since independence, the aid influx has averaged 1000 million a year, roughly equivalent to 10 per cent of the nation's GNP. Cars, jeeps, vans and trucks emblazoned with the symbols of the aid agencies ply the streets of the capital, Dacca. A small army of foreign personnel has set up camp in Gulshan, the city's most exclusive suburb, where palatial air-conditioned homes offer relief from the monsoon climate. Household furnishings brought on generous air freight allowances help the expatriates to feel at home, and a retinue of servants -a cook, washerwoman, sweeper, gardener, night watchman and chauffeur-eases the unavoidable burden of life in the Third World.

According to a recent US Congressional report, `For aspiring aid professionals, assignment to Bangladesh beckons like a battlefield assignment for career military officers'. From their offices in Dacca the visiting experts seek to direct Bangladesh's development. The World Bank chair of the Bangladesh Aid Group, a consortium of international donors, is at the apex of the aid establishment in Bangladesh. Its `Official Use Only' grey-cover reports on the Bangladesh economy are collectors' items on the development circuit. And the Bank's expatriate staff command salaries befitting `the most professional of the professionals'.

Bangladesh is an important testing ground for the World Bank's `basic needs' strategy and much of its assistance is `targeted' to small farmers and the rural poor. But there is an immense distance between the Bank's headquarters in Washington DC, or its local office in Dacca and the villages of Bangladesh. Programmes which look good on paper often look very different in the field.

While living in the village of Katni in northwestern Bangladesh, we stumbled on an example of World Bank aid. A yellow fibre-glass pipe, fourteen inches in diameter, jutted from the earth in the middle of a freshly ploughed field. It was a pipe sunk for a deep irrigation tubewell, one of 3,000 being installed in northwestern Bangladesh by a World Bank project. On paper the tubewell will be used by a farmers' co-operative formed especially for the purpose. According to the press release which announced the project, each tubewell `will serve from 25 to 50 farmers in an irrigation group'. In reality, the tubewell in Katni was the personal property of one man: Nafis, the biggest landlord of the area. The irrigation group, of which Nafis was supposedly the manager, was no more than a few signatures he had collected on a scrap of paper.

Although each tubewell cost the donors and the government about 12,000, Nafis paid less than $300 for his, mostly in bribes to local officials. The tubewell sits in the middle of a 30-acre tract of his best land. Since it will yield enough water to irrigate twice that area, Nafis says the small farmers who till adjacent plots will be able to use his water - at a price. The hourly rate he intends to charge is so high that few of his neighbours are interested. As a result his tubewell will not be used to its full capacity.

At first we were surprised that the beneficiary of the World Bank's aid should be the richest man in the village, but on closer inspection we learned that this was not so strange, `I no longer ask who is getting the well', reported a foreign expert working on the project. `I know what the answer will be, and I don't want to hear it. One hundred per cent of these wells are going to the big boys.'

`You see,' he explained, `on paper it's a different story. On paper all the peasants know these tubewells are available. If they want to have one, they form themselves into a democratic cooperative, draw up a proposal and submit it to the union council, which judges the application on its merits. It all sounds quite nice. Here are the peasants organizing to avail themselves of this wonderful resource. When the high-level officials fly in from Washington for a three-day visit to Dacca, they look at these papers. They don't know what is happening out here in the field and no one is going to tell them.'

An evaluation sponsored by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA), which co-financed the tubewell project, confirms that the experience of Katni was typical. After examining 270 tubewells the evaluator concluded that `with the rural power structure maintained largely because of the unequal distribution of land it would have been surprising to find the tubewells sited anywhere but on the land of rich farmers'. Given the social realities of rural Bangladesh, the outcome of the World Bank's tubewell project was entirely predictable.

After returning to the United States, our report on the tubewell project received considerable attention in the press and in the US Congress. Privately a World Bank official accused us of taking a `cheap shot' at the Bank, since the project was 'especially problematic'. Publicly, however, the Bank resolutely maintains that the project is a success.

In response to the controversy in Congress, the US Treasury Department sent Donald Sherk, its Senior Economist for Bank Policy, to Bangladesh in November 1978. The Treasury Department oversees US participation in the World Bank and Mr. Sherk's report provides an instructive example of how the Bank and its allies deal with criticism. Mr. Sherk spent a total of ten days in Bangladesh, two and a half of them in the northwest where the tubewell project is located. In presenting the Sherk report to a Congressional subcommittee, the Treasury Department's Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, C. Fred Bergsten, referred to this as `considerable time'. But close examination of the report suggests that it was not sufficient time for Mr. Sherk to unravel the mysteries of village-level politics in Bangladesh.

The report quotes three surveys as evidence that small farmers are the primary beneficiaries of the tubewell project. Two of the surveys are `spot checks' by World Bank study missions. Their statistics refer to the farmers `covered' by the tubewells, which apparently means all farmers who own land within the tubewell's hypothetical command area or who are listed as members of the `irrigation group'. But whether these farmers actually receive any irrigation water is a very different question. After examining hundreds of tubewell application forms, the SIDA evaluator noted that `in practically all applications the 10-15 biggest farmers are listed as the first names; the rest of the names for the proposed co-operatives were often on a separate piece of paper written with a different pen and by a different person ... as if somebody had formed the group, then realized the requirements and added whatever people he could get hold of in the area'.

On paper all of these small farmers are `covered' by the World Bank's tubewell project, but in practice, according to the SIDA evaluator, many of them `are not aware of the fact that they have been included in the scheme - or in the original tubewell application'.

A close look at the World Bank's data suggests that it is often constructed from such paper realities. In the first spot check, 20 tubewells are said to irrigate a total of 1,045 acres - 52 acres apiece, far above the 27-acre average found by an independent Rajshahi University study. The second survey reports an extraordinary average of 79 acres per tubewell. This is three times the average found by the Rajshahi researchers, and 30 per cent above the Bank's own estimate of the hypothetical command area. It is impossible to accept such numbers at their face value: they reflect either naivete or deliberate deception.

The second World Bank study also found, in the words of the Treasury report, that `In 8 of 18 cases the largest landholder in the group was not the manager'. This of course means that in the other ten cases the largest landholder was the manager. Mr. Sherk prefers to look on the bright side. His next sentence repeats the Bank's remarkable conclusion: `The project tubewells have not been taken over by the large farmers.' Such is the power of positive thinking.

In January 1979 we visited World Bank headquarters in Washington DC, and met with the acting head of the Bank's South Asia operations. The Bank's head office forms a little universe unto itself. Well-dressed technocrats sit behind fluorescent lights, surrounded by the tools of their trade: computer terminals, office machines and secretaries. Their offices form a vast lettered and numbered grid, interconnected by a maze of corridors and elevators, broken only by occasional cafeterias and rest rooms. Seated deep within this bureaucratic honeycomb, we tried to explain what we had learned in the villages of Bangladesh.

Our chaperone from public relations assured us that the Bank had no difficulty in learning the truth about what happens at the village level. `You know the peasants,' he reminded us. `They like to talk. Whenever one of our people visits a village, there's always someone who will speak up.'

In our own experience, it had taken at least three months before the villagers trusted us with details of their landholdings!

The South Asia chief insisted that the deep tubewells were benefitting small farmers. He acknowledged only one problem: getting the water to the fields. The irrigation groups have evidently failed to dig adequate distribution canals. The chief admitted, `You or I could go out there and dig those channels. The problem is not that the farmers don't know how to dig ditches, but that they don't want to.' We were not surprised. No one wants to sacrifice precious land for channels to carry water to someone else's fields, and the men who control the tubewells don't really care if water reaches everybody `covered' by the project or not. The Bank's response to this dilemma is characteristic - the South Asia chief informed us that the Bank has earmarked an extra million dollars to facilitate field channel construction. The assumption seems to be that if you throw enough money at a problem, eventually it will disappear. Development is not so simple.

Betsy Hartmann and James K. Boyce are authors of Needless Hunger: Voices from a Bangladesh Village, published by the Institute for Food and Development Policy. They have recently completed A Quiet Violence, a detailed account of life in a Bangladesh village.

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