15 April 2024

Creating and Holding Space: Participating in Development Bank Meetings

Attribution: Freepik

Dialogue is essential to inclusive development. The social license to operate in a given community depends on it. To be certain, engaging with communities to identify needs, design projects, and ensure accountability for environmental, social, and human rights impacts is necessary to both justify and support the sustainability of development projects. What’s more, creating intentional spaces to reflect on the actual experiences of project-impacted communities serves sustainability and continued improvement of impact.

As the World Bank Group holds its Spring Meetings this week, and the Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, African Development Bank, and other multilateral institutions are set to hold their annual gatherings in the next few months, we call upon the institutions to broaden efforts to integrate the voices of those who should matter most – project-impacted communities.

Why Participation and Inclusion Matter

Although banks make effort to assess the environmental and social risks of projects, communities have been burdened to live with the consequences should unintended impacts go overlooked or risks manifest into harm. If development impact is intended to be sustainable and rights-supportive, then community voices should drive development decisions.

Community and civil society stakeholders rely on annual and seasonal bank gatherings to interface with institutional actors on improving environmental and social governance and accountability, promote an appreciation for human rights, enhance public access to information, and advocate for other important issues. People from all over the world hope to participate and advocate for the interests of the communities they represent at these meetings.

The time and space dedicated to engaging with communities indicates whether banks are actually interested in dismantling vestiges of colonialism that have pervaded international development, or whether they are more concerned with controlling narrative. As put by Surya Deva, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to development, in his call for a new model of planet-centered, participatory development: engaging with the beneficiaries of development, especially those representing the interests of the marginalized or ignored, is essential to begin overcoming inequalities that compromise development impact. Banks that ignore the principles of equity and self-determination do so in favor of the mere optics of inclusion.

The Current State of Participation — Still Too Few Opportunities to Meaningfully Engage

Concerning trends demonstrate that much more must be done to ensure that those spaces have actual influence on bank policies and practices. Preliminarily, there are often logistical challenges that hinder the participation of civil society and community organizations at bank meetings. Many have not been able to attend for lack of access to funding to support travel and accommodations; many are met with undue delays in visa processing that prevent their in-person attendance. Those that can attend, often find the opportunities for robust engagement lacking.

As an example, for the first time in over a decade the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) extended an invitation to civil society to participate in its Annual Meetings, touting the new access as an innovation to its institutional strategy. Accountability Counsel’s Stephanie Amoako was in attendance. Nonetheless, IDB policy allowed country members to veto the participation of certain civil society members who registered to attend, effectively stifling the perspective of many advocating for institutional reforms. In fact, one of the civil society members who was subject to this veto had recently filed a complaint to the IDB’s independent accountability mechanism, which suggests that their participation was hampered out of a fear of legitimate criticism.

The World Bank Group, on the other hand, has provided space for a Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF) at its Annual and Spring Meetings since 2014. The decision was made, however, to cut the upcoming 2024 Spring CSPF by one full day and to reduce the number of events by approximately twenty-five percent. Institutions like the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have traditionally dedicated only a handful of civil society-led discussions as part of their respective annual meetings. Even less space is available for civil society engagement at the African Development Bank annual meetings.

Too often, the spaces carved out for civil society and community organizations are ill-attended by bank leadership, leaving many to question whether they are being heard at all. Although some banks make effort to facilitate roundtable discussions between civil society and bank leadership, including Board members and senior management, these meeting are often inadequate for the depth of dialogue sought. If Multilateral Development Banks and other institutions truly want to make their annual or biannual gatherings inclusive and hear from those most affected by the decisions made by these institutions, they must create more opportunities for civil society to engage with bank leadership during these meetings and remove restrictions and barriers to civil society participation.

Staying Engaged and Holding Place

As our team readies to participate in three panels at the World Bank Group Spring Meetings’ Civil Society Policy Forum, we hold concern for the exclusion of other important topics of discussion. Inclusive, accountable, and responsive development finance demands that impacted communities be represented and respected.

Nonetheless, we maintain hope in the possibility of dialogue to spark meaningful institutional changes. We invite you to join us in our participation at the following upcoming events:

  • When Exits and Accountability Collide: What Happens When IFC Exits Projects Mid-Accountability Process?
    April 18, 3:00-4:40 pm EDT
    “IFC’s development of responsible exit principles has largely ignored aftereffects of exiting projects subject to the Office of the Compliance Advisor (CAO)’s processes. We explore CAO’s recently published study of exits and lessons related to WBG’s core ambition: eradicate poverty on a livable planet, IFC’s principles, and impacts from exits mid-accountability process on communities and environment.”
  • The Impact of IFC Investments in Education: The Accountability Gap and Lessons for Other DFIs
    April 19, 2:15-3:45 pm EDT
    “The World Bank Group is intensifying efforts to mobilize and scale up private investment and involvement in the delivery of its mission. However, recent reports from the CAO underscore the importance of reassessing the Bank’s reliance on private actors in providing essential social services. Other DFIs across the world have mirrored the IFC’s approach, potentially replicating the same accountability gaps observed at the IFC. The panel aims to delve into the CAOs new findings, their implications for other DFIs and explore how DFIs should respond in order to ensure human rights and effective remedy are upheld.”
  • Adequate Disclosure, Public Review, and Consultation for Environmental and Social Impacts Before WBG Financing Decisions
    April 19, 4:30-6:00 pm EDT
    “Opportunity for public review before project approval is vital for environmental impact assessments. However, the World Bank falls short of its public review, disclosure, and consultation requirements that apply before project financing. Frontline communities and civil society will share evidence of how WBG is failing to meet its obligations, causing avoidable harm.