For the past several months, numerous high profile and damaging stories have made their way out of World Bank Headquarters and into mainstream popular news. While this has happened before -- and no doubt will happen again -- these stories seem to be especially engaging, focused, researched and damning. From a disastrous coal-fired power plant in India to massive forced resettlement and refugee crises all across the globe, the World Bank seems to be slow marching from one disaster to the next. The question becomes, therefore, how can the bank avoid these public relations fiascos in the future? The easy answer, of course, is to not create 3.4 million new refugees worldwide. Until that is the case, the bank could at least loosen up the press restrictions and preemptively let some sunlight in. Unauthorized disclosures cannot and do not occur within an open, transparent and honest global organization.
The World Bank's recent responses to the refugee crisis story -- an internal review and a loosely detailed Action Plan -- only exist because of unauthorized disclosures to the press that started within bank headquarters from bank employees. Currently, and in the wide majority of cases, these disclosures are the only windows we as outside observers and civil society organizations have into the true inner workings of the bank. They are a last-ditch measure to call attention to serious issues or threats that the bank refuses to acknowledge and address.
It is absolutely pathetic that the American and global public must rely on unauthorized disclosures to get this insight. This is information that we are entitled to and should be forthcoming from bank officials. Powerful officials may not want a free flow of information, but that is not their decision to make. We all fund the bank through taxes. We need to know what they are doing in a reasonable timeframe and manner. And we cannot compromise on these matters.
Instead of addressing the issues, the World Bank has been hunting down and prosecuting whistleblowers. These whistleblowers are dedicated professionals trying to do their best under very difficult circumstances. Did the person who unveiled the truth regarding the 3.4 million refugees the bank created over the past decade do something horrible and worthy of retribution? Or were they trying in their own small way to break the Bank-imposed silence and ensure that this does not happen again? Should this person really be persecuted for their alleged crime, or should they be held up as an example of what an honest and dedicated bank-staffer should do? Unfortunately, we all know the bank's answer.
Doing the right thing -- exposing gross negligence, and in some cases, illegal acts by the bank -- should not mean risking your job. Ask some simple questions. Are we better off knowing about the role the Bank played in the making of upwards of 3.4 million refugees of the last decade? How likely will it be that the next whistle-blower feels comfortable enough to come forward after the Bank's ongoing inquisition? What will remain under wraps because of official bank harassment and intimidation?
The World Bank is a slow moving global organization with member states from every corner of the globe. Some members are not accustomed to a free press. Truth be told, some members are much more comfortable and used to throwing reporters in jail as opposed to answering their questions and making documents available for their review. But we expect much more from the bank. Its mission is to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide. It does not have sinister intent. Theoretically, it seeks to do good and it is doing some good.
There is not much you can do to help people who do not, at minimum, trust you and your organization to be open and accountable. Information on projects worldwide should be available for all to see online when it becomes available. Research, formal reviews and complaints should be treated in the same manner. A completely new culture of openness at the bank would go a long way toward growing trust between the bank, civil society organizations, the private sector and bank clients the world over. And if the bank truly wants to stop whistle-blowers, they can be more forthcoming with news, both good and bad. Bad news will always come to light eventually. The question is whether the bank will step up to admit and address mistakes willingly, or wait until it is publicly embarrassed.
Co-authored by Timothy McHugh, Communications Consultant at Bank Information Center