The World Bank invites cooperation from civil society, then buries critical findings.
Published in the March 2004 issue of the New Internationalist.
The World Bank has long been confronted with studies documenting the harmful impacts of its policies. Normally, Bank officials dismiss these critical reports out of hand, citing their own research to defend their initiatives. However, refuting the validity of the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI), a major evaluation with damning conclusions about the central policy assumptions that guide the Bank’s work presents a more difficult task.
Along with a broad network of grass roots organizations (called SAPRIN), the Bank itself was a full partner in designing and implementing the initiative. While officials tried at many points to impede the review, and while they have attempted to bury the final SAPRI findings, the report stands as one of the most comprehensive and imposing records available of how structural adjustment worsens poverty and inequality in the developing world.
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 endeavors like the World Commission on Dams and the Extractive Industries Review. Cheery press releases publicized the launch of each new “partnership,” emphasizing the institution’s willingness to work cooperatively with its detractors. Official enthusiasm then waned markedly when the initiatives began to suggest that policy-as-usual was unacceptable. SAPRI represents the most thoroughgoing of these engagements, and provides an important illustration of the Bank’s inability to enter dialogue in good faith.
SAPRI began in 1996, when non-governmental organizations that had been challenging the Bank negotiated with its management to establish a methodology for examining the results of structural adjustment programs. Ultimately, the parties agreed to conduct joint multi-year investigations in Bangladesh, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Hungary, Mali, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Mexico and the Philippines were also on the list, but SAPRIN organizations in those countries were forced to launch processes without the Bank and their governments when the latter refused to join the exercise.
The focus of research planning was to make sure that the process would solicit the perspectives of those affected by Bank policy, giving them, in SAPRIN’s words, “the resources and the power to develop their own processes of outreach and cooperation.” The result was an innovative mechanism for incorporating 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 on this issue,” says Doug Hellinger of The Development GAP, the SAPRIN network’s global coordinator.
Originally released in draft form in 2002, the initiative’s findings have now been collected into a new book, Structural Adjustment—The SAPRI Report: The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis, Poverty, and Inequality, which is being co-published internationally by Zed Books and Third World Network.
The report identifies “four basic ways in which adjustment policies have contributed to the further impoverishment and marginalization of local populations, while increasing economic inequality.” Due to trade and financial sector reforms, domestic manufacturing enterprises in the countries studied were destroyed, eliminating jobs. Agricultural, trade, and mining reforms worsened conditions for small farmers, increasing food insecurity and negatively impacting the environment. Privatization hurt labor unions, suppressed wages, and moved essential public services beyond the reach of the poor. Similarly, decreased government spending diminished access to health care and education.
Early in the SAPRI process, difficulties emerged as various government and World Bank participants realized that the outcomes of the initiative would not reflect well on the policies they had implemented. SAPRIN writes in its report that the governments “began to understand the risk of involvement, caught as they would be between the popular expectations that would be raised by such an assessment and the unlikelihood that the Bank and the IMF would allow them to change economic course in response to citizen pressure.” 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 by a European government for the NGO network. When the time came for the final presentation of the SAPRI findings, Bank leaders shied away from the large-scale public event to which it had originally committed. Wolfensohn failed to show up for even a smaller roundtable discussion. Lidy Nacpil, a leader in the Freedom from Debt Coalition in the Philippines and a member of the SAPRIN steering committee, argued at the time that “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.”
After nearly a year of ignoring SAPRI results, media attention given to the release of the initiative’s final report in 2002 forced Wolfensohn back to the table. In subsequent meetings with SAPRIN organizations, he acknowledged the findings as “important” and “legitimate.” However, since that time, he and his institution have failed to act on his realization.
“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.” Bank officials claim that its new Country Assistance Strategies and national Poverty Reduction Strategies are informed by public participation. Hellinger counters that these processes are seriously flawed because citizens cannot effectively challenge the very adjustment policies that are condemned in the SAPRI review. In a recent letter to Bank management, SAPRIN wrote that its teams in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Ghana, and Uganda unanimously reported that “what has happened so far is exactly the opposite of what had been agreed” in negotiations.
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 behavior, and that publicly highlighting the institution’s illegitimacy remains the only option open to those hurt by its policies.
“Thousands of organizations and hard-working people invested their time, their insights and their trust in this lengthy process,” SAPRIN writes. “They have every right to expect a meaningful response and effective action… SAPRI participants have, instead, witnessed the continuation of Bank-promoted adjustment programs in their respective countries.”
“There’s no question anymore that these policies don’t work,” says Hellinger. “SAPRIN did the Bank a favor. It took its people to another level, another reality and showed them a disturbing truth. SAPRI 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.”