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Rocky road to World Bank re-engagement
Inter Press Service - August 21, 2012
At the beginning of August, the World Bank, along with the Asian Development Bank, reopened offices in Yangon, following more than a year of widely watched though still disputed political and social reforms in the country. This marks the first formal engagement between the World Bank and Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 25 years, as well as the first ever entry of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank Group's private-sector arm.
Already the bank has pledged an US$85 million loan, also expected for approval in October, alongside a plan to restructure Myanmar's debt, worth some $400 million.
Now, the bank has released a draft summary of what is formally known as an interim strategy note (ISN), intended to help inform ongoing consultations on the draft ISN. But the move comes following urging by local and international NGOs and amidst ongoing complaints that the bank has not engaged in adequate consultation with local communities.
Indeed, there is still no local-language version of the ISN, though the bank says that this is under preparation.
To date, local organizations and communities have felt the World Bank's approach is non-inclusive, sparse on details, lacks transparency and, most worrisome, does not solicit input from the organizations and communities most affected by conflict and development to inform their decision-making process, Jennifer Quigley, with the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma, told IPS.
Just prior to the ISN release, four dozen Myanmarese NGOs sent a letter to the World Bank's headquarters, expressing their anxiety that "the Bank's re-engagement activities in our country... have been rushed, secretive and top-down."
The letter's writers note having "initiated discussions" with the bank and others since early this year and admit that the current situation of flux and reform "presents opportunities for the World Bank to practice good governance". But they also characterize the ISN design process as "flawed".
"While there have been some informal meetings with World Bank staff and some civil society networks... there was never any mention of the ISN, let alone formal consultations," the letter states.
"[N]o consultation approach, consultation materials, guide questions, location or timeline were ever disclosed. The outcomes of the consultation and the draft ISN are not even posted online."
This last point has now been rectified, and the bank is openly requesting emailed reactions to the draft ISN.
"The World Bank is and has been consulting widely," the bank's Chisako Fukuda told IPS. "From the ongoing consultations on the draft ISN, we have already heard important views from a range of people in Myanmar, from government, civil society, local and international NGOs working on Myanmar, development partners, UN agencies and the private sector, and we look forward to further discussion."
For their part, the NGO representatives offered a series of detailed suggestions to bank officials, both with regard to how to structure a stronger consultation process and on how to safeguard its re-entry into Myanmar.
These latter include a spectrum of economic, environmental and human-rights-related protections based on Myanmar's "history of rights abuses and corruption... particularly in relation to infrastructure projects, coupled with the country's history of economic isolation".
According to the draft ISN, much of the bank's initial work over the year-and-a-half will revolve around assessments, evaluations and capacity-building, readying the ground for a full country program to follow.
The document also includes a pointed recommendation to "Move slowly and scale up gradually; invest in developing government's implementation capacity and fiduciary/safeguard systems", though this warning may be complicated by a separate reference to "generating quick and tangible impacts in people's daily lives".
Perhaps the most contentious section of the ISN will be the bank's plan to "support the peace process in border areas through community-driven development programs to promote the recovery of conflict-affected communities". According to Pamela Cox, World Bank vice-president for East Asia and Pacific, in a video released this week, this aspect of the bank's proposed work plan would receive about US$5 million in funding.
While a focus on these communities is undeniably critical, their engagement is also the most complicated. It is here that locals are most marginalized from the reforms process in Myanmar, most alienated from the state and most suspicious of "development", often seeing such projects as thinly veiled attempts to take over their resource-rich lands.
In late July, a network of ethnic Karen community-based organizations released a statement criticizing the Norway-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), a high-level project working to assist in negotiating peaceful settlements among the ethnic conflicts still raging in several of Myanmar's border regions. (In June, the World Bank had pledged to support Norway's efforts.)
Worryingly, the Karen criticisms sound strikingly similar to those voiced more recently on the World Bank's ISN design process, decrying the effects of a "lack of transparency and community involvement" in the MPSI.
"Given those problems, we ask MPSI and other proponents of donor-driven peace funds not to undermine our peace process, but rather to move to a more inclusive and transparent process," the letter stated.
"MPSI should not take shortcuts or sow division within our leadership and our community in a bid to rush the deployment of funds. We understand your sense of urgency, but this process is too fragile to easily survive major mistakes that can be avoided."
Some groups have recently voiced concerns that international groups, partnering with the government, could effectively squeeze out community-led initiatives in the border areas.
"If the World Bank goes through the government, there are many questions that we need to ask – for example, will only registered groups get opportunities?" Paul Sein Twa, with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and one of the lead writers of the recent letter to the World Bank, told the Democratic Voice of Burma, a news website, last week.
"We would encourage them to see many of the unregistered and local groups working in the border regions as well. If the international NGOs don't understand the issues on the ground, there could be many problems."