POLITICS
10/17/2013 01:59 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2013

World Bank Reorganization Sparks Concern About Future Of Social Development Work

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WASHINGTON -- At its annual meeting last week, the World Bank Group announced major reorganization plans, along with a $400 million budget cut. The shakeup has some inside and outside of the international financial institution worrying that the bank's development projects will not prioritize the concerns of the communities that they are intended to better.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who took the lead at the bank last year, has said that the reorganization is meant to reduce bureaucracy and increase collaboration.

According to a presentation that leadership made to staff in late September and obtained by The Huffington Post, it appears likely that the now-separate social development work is slated to be folded into other areas. Overall, the reorganization seeks to apportion the bank's work into 14 "Global Practice" areas, which have working titles such as agriculture, education, poverty, water and energy and extractives.

Some staff are concerned that this will result in social development getting lumped in with urban and rural development, rather standing on its own.

"We're going backwards by focusing on big infrastructure -- bigger, fewer projects," said a bank staffer who works on social issues who asked not to be named.

The staffer said that the bank currently employs about 45 people who focus on social development. Those staffers oversee the implementation of social safeguards and consult with the local community on projects like roads, bridges and power plants, addressing issues that may arise like conflict, indigenous rights and the effects of development. As the bank itself describes the work, social development "puts people first."

The staffer said that there is concern throughout the unit, which includes sociologists and anthropologists as well as lawyers and economists, that their work will not be as valued in the new organization structure, and that if it is lumped in with other programs, the social aspects will become just "a check box" on the path to approving projects, rather than a focal point.

"Social issues are what make projects complicated," said the staffer. "You can build all you want, but if you don't include the people around you, all you've got are bricks and mortar."

The staffer also predicted that the proposed reorganization will make it "hard to attract talent that can really engage on social issues," if they feel like that specialization is not seen as valuable.

The bank itself is seems aware of these concerns. In response to a request for comment about the reorganization and social development, the bank's press office pointed to a Storify page it curated during the meeting that invites public dialogue on social inclusion, and to a report, "Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity," released at last week's meeting.

"Social development is central to achieving the WBG goals of poverty reduction and shared prosperity and will be a critical component of the new urban, rural and social global practice," said Fionna Douglas, communications manager with the bank's Sustainable Development Network in an email to The Huffington Post. "We anticipate emerging work to focus on crime and violence particularly in an urban setting," she said. "[W]e expect social development to be a key theme in our governance and social accountability work going forward. The social development team will also support the work of other practices to ensure that social dimensions are mainstreamed across WBG activities."

The reorganization has also drawn attention from outside groups that follow the bank closely. The international finance watchdog group Bretton Woods Project noted in its wrap-up of last week's meetings that this will be the "biggest reorganization of the Bank in about two decades." Their report also cites "gloomy rumblings from Bank staff," though it says the mood is better than it has been under previous leadership. Some of the concern noted in the report comes from staff who are worried that their positions will be cut entirely.

The Bank Information Center -- a watchdog group aimed at pushing the bank toward broader social inclusion in its decision-making -- said in a statement after the meeting that the reorganization could allow for improvements on the social front, if handled properly. "The reorganization, under the leadership of President Jim Yong Kim, is an opportunity for the Bank to reallocate resources to upgrade and enhance the implementation of its social and environmental standards, which deliver several benefits for poor communities," said the group. "Alternatively, if the Bank makes the mistake of viewing safeguards as an afterthought rather than an integral part of the solution, it might reduce the numbers or authority of its safeguard specialists and increase the risks of harm to the poor and vulnerable."

Environmental groups have also been critical of the bank for continuing to fund coal projects abroad, despite a new policy stating that it would only do so in "rare cases" when there is "no feasible alternative."

Bruce Rich, author of the book Foreclosing the Future: The World Bank and the Politics of Environmental Destruction, was more critical of the reorganization plans at a rally last week, arguing that "the strategy ignores worsening, systemic institutional failings in the Bank" and would "foster the continuation of a dysfunctional internal culture" that "funds massive mining and fossil fuel power schemes and giant hydroelectric dams that impoverish rather than help local populations."

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