Posts Tagged ‘World Bank’

No no no

I sincerely hope this comment was taken out of context:

“The problem of providing rural water around the world hasn’t been cracked,” said Philippe Dongier, World Bank country director for Tanzania. “You could say, ‘if that’s not going to be sustainable, why should we build it?’ But that could be said all over the world.”

That’s from Tom Murphy’s investigation into the World Bank’s $1.4bn failed water project in Tanzania. Alas I reckon Tom’s journalistic standards are likely to be better than the World Bank’s sustainability policies.

It’s with this kind of rubbish that international aid agencies shoot themselves in the foot. And yet they express bewilderment at the growing opposition to official aid by various right wing groups in donor countries.

Ease of doing business is not the same as poverty alleviation

I am a little bit puzzled about the complaints listed in a Guardian piece last week criticising the World Bank’s rankings of the easiest countries in the world for doing business. Surely if such a ranking is to be meaningful it has to see the world substantially from the point of view of business people? I.e. fewer environmental rules, and lower levels of unionization will be just as much of interest to a businessman considering where to invest as the amount of red tape that s/he will have to deal with. Conversely s/he is unlikely to take much account of inequality and poverty indicators except where they may directly affect their intended workforce, so why should they feature in the rankings?

If the World Bank were not putting out these ratings, I imagine someone else would be by now. So, rather than shooting the messenger, complainants might want to focus on or more of the following solutions:

  1. Raising minimum standards worldwide so there can be less labour rights arbitrage.
  2. Simplifying regulations to focus on the important stuff.
  3. Improving consistency of implementation / enforcement.

Long rulebooks filled with obscure stipulations are a corrupt official’s paradise! (And civil society organisations are just as much affected by barmy employment law as businesses.) Furthermore, if implementation is uneconomic or enforcement uneven you can actually have a negative affect on workers’ rights and the environment since the more honest employers are put off from investing, leaving the field free for those who never have any intention of playing fair.

That aside, I can guess at one underlying cause of the complaints which is completely skated over in the article. Maybe the problem is not so much the rankings (which by increasing information flow can only be a good thing), but the emphasis put upon them by Western donors as a proxy for supporting the concerns of their own multinational firms, at the expense of broader development issues. E.g. the complaint from Zambian civil society that credit is only available to big businesses. Now it might be that national governments in places like Zambia are misinterpreting donor concerns (à la isomorphic mimicry), but it wouldn’t surprise me if, on this point, many donors were guilty as charged. Don’t expect too much altruism from Official Development Assistance aid.

Do you work for a donor?

If so this post is for you. I was talking to some others of your species yesterday. We were lamenting the problem of short term grants; my fellow conversationalists agreed that this was a real problem, but what can you do? Governments won’t countenance long term commitments. (Although multi-laterals like the World Bank don’t have to deal with annoying things like general elections, so not sure why they cannot take a longer view.) One chap related the general amazement recently when a ten year grant was approved – that this was something almost unheard of.

I didn’t think of this retort yesterday, but here’s what I wish I’d said in reply:

If you work for a donor we need you to be brave. Next time your boss tells you to work up an outline for a 3-5 year development intervention to achieve some kind of social change, don’t just knuckle down. Tell her it can’t be done, period. Tell her that 10 years is the minimum under the most optimistic of considerations (so optimistic that you’d have to be a bit of a looney to really believe it will succeed) and that 15-20 years is the kind of commitment that is actually required. Whatever you do, do not attempt some kind of compromise proposal (‘the best you can manage’). It won’t work, and we all know donor promises for follow-ons are dubious at best, and always involve ridiculous gaps while the results of the last phase are evaluated.

Maybe your boss will get the message, maybe you’ll get fired. But at least you’ll have done the right thing. Don’t be another creature of the system in which things are done like this just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Why does the UNDP exist?

A few years ago there were regular stories about the US failing to pay their full UN dues; the Senate refused to authorise the payments because of perceived waste on the part of the UN. In a bit of knee-jerk anti-Americanism I used to think this was a perfect example of the US refusing to play by international rules (also e.g. refusing to sign up to the ICC). Now I am not so sure. I suspect that many of the Senate’s objections were based on conservative ideologies with which I have little truck, but I do question why much of the UN system exists, and now I note that the new UK government has similar concerns.

My view is this; the UN is an incredibly important institution for international peace, law and order. If the UN did not exist we would have to invent it or something very similar. And much as some American libertarians may object, I think they should be as subject to international norms as everyone else. However, although the UN is hardly a perfectly equitable structure, it’s founding principles are about giving everyone (or at least every country) a voice and a stake. It is, by its own definition, far from a meritocratic institution.

I have never worked for any UN institution, but I have plenty of friends who have, and they all complain about stifling bureaucracy and a hideously inefficient organisation. Kofi Annan carried out various reforms which I am lead to believe improved things significantly, but there are still far too many time wasters and placemen from UN member countries whose paper qualifications somewhat flatter their actual abilities. Of course not all UN agency staff are a waste of space, but enough are to significantly hinder their operational effect. There are apparently more UN development agencies than there are developing countries! (HT: Owen Barder, see also Aid Watch.)

The Economist made an interesting argument (sorry no link) that bilateral agencies should get out of much of direct aid management, thus simplifying aid delivery for over-stretched recipient country governments, and let experts from the World Bank do it. I agree completely except that the World Bank’s record on many development projects is abysmal. (I am not in a position to comment on the Bank’s other functions at macroeconomic level and supporting the finances of developing countries.)

Bill Easterly has called for a more market oriented approach to aid and development, and I think this is part of  the solution. Massive, non-meritocratic, inefficient UN behemoths should get out of the way, and let smaller, nimbler actors who can actually deliver change in the field take over. Not all will succeed, but we need to allow for failure.

There is a joke here that upon returning from any business trip UN staff must fill out a trip report, the obligatory first sentence of which is “The trip was a success.” The UNDP and its brethren have not been a success. Some international political oversight is useful and needed, not least to prod governments who may not be actually doing the best by their citizens, e.g. Sudan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe. But not running the projects for which they clearly lack the management nous.

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