Why having a computer is not enough-Does the World Bank use aid transparency to avoid tough debates on internal accountability?

I am little bit surprised that I have not come across more critical writing on the recent World Bank-IMF spring meeting that took place in Washington, DC last week.
However I did notice some engagement in the preliminary official civil society policy forum, most notably Jennifer Lentfer’s engagement. The other piece was a contribution by Huff Post blogger Rebecca Harris ‘Knowledge Is Power: Transparency and ParticipationWill Be the Drivers of Effective Development’ which openly promotes the official World Bank discourse about a changing, more transparent and accountable Bank. If this is how large aid organisations will interpret the ‘OpenAid’ discourse, it will stay at the level of ‘data CSR’ without having an impact on actual organisational accountability or transparency (the Swedish, quite literally, are a visible proof how the access to aid data can be made easy and approachable even for non-academic experts on this topic).
There are two very interesting points to point out with regards to World Bank and the high-level meeting:
1. Not unlike to what I noticed in my previous post on the recent World Development Report release, the Bank manages to put itself out of the historical, political and institutional context: As laudable as Zoellick’s idea is that ‘We will encourage governments to publish information, enact Freedom of Information Acts, open up their budget and procurement processes’ it should be pointed out that this will not have an impact on how the Bank works-that’s ‘them’, not ‘us’, that’s ‘there’, not ‘here’.

2. Open access to data seems to be enough. Apparently, Barbara Lee, Manager of the Aid Effectiveness Unit at the World Bank ‘declared that "everyone who has access to a computer can hold the World Bank accountable," as a result of the Bank's Open Data Initiative and revised information disclosure policy’. Unfortunately, she failed to tell me and the rest of the world how exactly this is possible.
One look on the Bretton Wood Project’s website (unfortunately they have a remarkably underwhelming social media presence) reveals interesting food for thought when it comes to the ‘other face’ of the World Bank, internal processes and engagement with developing countries.
Did you know that the World Bank’s safeguards and independent scrutiny may be at risk? or that ‘early April saw the launch of the new World Bank Group strategy for engagement in the palm oil sector, which failed to resolve civil society concerns over several issues, including the rights of indigenous peoples and how performance standards will be applied across supply chains’?
As in most cases, the issue is more complicated as the recent case from Cambodia shows where the Bank has admitted breaching operational policies, but any responsibility for compensation remains with the government of Cambodia. The report concludes that

‘More than 15 years since the establishment of the Inspection Panel, there continues to be no guarantee that claimants whose rights are vindicated by the Panel will receive any remedy whatsoever. If the Bank continues to lend to governments that consistently violate safeguard policy obligations and refuse to remedy harm, then it must be prepared to provide reparations unilaterally. In the absence of such a redress mechanism, the Bank will continue to suffer from an accountability deficit and demands for stripping the Bank’s legal immunity will grow ever louder’
And they even have computers there! 
The bottom line is that publishing aid data is far from enough and that the Bank struggles to engage with accountability in their day-to-day work outside civil society forums and official presentations and that aid transparency advocats need to think more critically about the next steps from data to action. In a recent discussion (only available in German, but Claudia Schwegmann from OpenAid.de published a new post on
Aid transparency as donor "self-preservation"?’) the German minister for economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, basically said that he is afraid that aid transparency and reporting standards may distract staff from real project work. He may not be the only senior policy person who thinks that aid data and debates around budgets and money are only part of the communication strategy rather than leading to discussions about how organisations deal internally and every day in their normal project work with these challenges.
‘Zoellick noted that issues such as corruption, gender and transparency were in the past not mentioned at the World Bank because they were seen as too political. But over the last 20 years, each had become recognized as crucial for successful development and are now part of the Bank’s policy portfolio. Likewise, citizen participation and good governance are recognized today as must haves for economic success.’
As much truth as Zoellick’s statement has, it doesn’t say anything about how the Bank will be leading by example – will it take another 20 years before the World Bank and other donors will embrace internal transparency, enforceable accountability and true openness?


  1. A commentator of the original HuffPost article added some interesting insights to the way the Bank deals with internal affairs. She writes:
    'Mr. Zoellick retaliates against whistleblo­wers intrepid enough to inform Congress and the World Bank's Board how the World Bank's Institutio­nal Integrity Department interfered with the Board's access to informatio­n. The abuses of the World Bank's Institutio­nal Integrity Department are now public knowledge'.
    For more details: Bar complaint charges former World-Bank official with ethics violations:

  2. Very true. Barbara Lee's comment is a bit like saying "we don't need parliament to hold the government responsible, because we have a freedom of information act and a court of auditors"....


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