By Kelsey Alford-Jones of the Center for International Environmental Law and Preksha Kumar of the International Accountability Project
For one hour, once a year, World Bank President Jim Kim meets with representatives of international organizations and civil society groups.
In years past, the town-hall style meetings have featured people asking questions, providing testimonies, comments and sometimes even protesting those who wield tremendous power and influence over their communities’ lives and livelihoods. This year, however, participation was tightly and unnecessarily controlled, questions were disallowed, and President Kim’s responses suggested a callous disregard for their concerns.
Though Kim may not be a household name, he runs one of the most powerful global financial institutions; World Bank projects affect the lives of millions of people around the world. The World Bank in turn belongs to the World Bank Group, which consists of five separate lending institutions, supported by 189 member countries. The Group borrows tens of billions of dollars each year — mostly from the US, Japan, China, France and Germany — and lends to governments and private entities around the world.
In theory the goal of these investments is to end extreme poverty, yet “development” projects funded by the Bank often cause harm to the very people they should prioritize. Perhaps even more ironically, the Bank has historically paid little attention to the opinions of people living in extreme poverty and has ignored complaints from affected communities.
The annual town hall-style meeting is part of an ongoing effort by civil society organizations to create a forum for affected communities to have bank officials respond to their concerns.
This year’s one-hour forum felt more more restrictive, less interactive and less informative than years past, both due to the structure and the content of the meeting. The first 20 minutes were for opening remarks by President Kim and Madam Lagarde, at which point questions were allowed within predefined thematic categories. Only a handful of questions were admitted during each round, and speakers who made it to the microphone late, and whose questions were deemed “off topic” or repetitive, were admonished and their questions “disallowed.”
In the end, only 13 questions were presented, a quarter of which the moderator eventually disallowed. Each question reflected serious concerns shared by project-affected communities around the globe — such as the Bank’s ongoing funding of fossil fuels, forced resettlement, and human and environmental abuses caused by Bank projects, and a lack of accountability and transparency.
The tone of the proceedings shocked many who were at the event. Throughout the meeting, President Kim consistently failed to acknowledge that people’s questions were rooted in their direct experiences and reflected legitimate concerns about Bank-funded projects. Listening to President Kim, audible gasps came from the audience and some participants even walked out. None of this activity is captured in the recording of the meeting, where President Kim is shown to be seated in front of World Bank staff; not civil society members or representatives of communities.
Perhaps the most telling interaction of the evening occurred when a speaker raised concerns about energy access she experiences at home in Zambia. President Kim interrupted the moderator and responded: “You will pay less for your energy in Zambia and it will come from solar [power] because of what we did. And you’re welcome.”
Equally concerning than the limiting structure of the discussion, was the dismissive and — at times — disdainful manner in which President Kim responded to those in the room.
On water privatization, a participant asked Kim about the conflict of interest arising from the Bank’s multiple roles in projects that privatize water. The issue was raised in a letter earlier this year from U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI), the ranking member of a subcommittee with direct oversight of the World Bank Group. Moore called on the World Bank Group “to cease promoting and funding privatization of water resources…until there has been a robust outside evaluation of the IFC’s conflicts policy and practices and an opportunity for additional congressional hearings on the subject.”
Kim began his response by saying: “Look, I know Gwen Moore very well, right. And I know she didn’t actually write the letter. You guys did a great job writing the letter.” Dr. Kim’s dismissal of Congresswoman Moore’s autonomy and intent as an elected United States Representative is troubling.
Another civil society representative asked about the Bank’s reduced capacity to work on freedom of information. “What informed the Bank’s decision to close down its Access to Information unit?” he asked President Kim, referencing an issue raised in a letter signed by 130 organizations in June 2016 when three long-time Freedom of Information experts left the Bank. Those three staff comprised essentially the entire staff dedicated to Freedom of Information at the Bank. The questioner continued: “Don’t you think this sends the wrong signal to governments…and what is the bank doing to mitigate the likely negative impact of this decision?”
Kim’s response referenced the importance of access to information, but he chose to begin with a critique of the speaker: “Nobody on my team is aware of an Access to Information unit, and so it’s hard to close down something you don’t have. So please go tell all your friends, and your family that what you said isn’t true.”
On the issue of resettlement, President Kim seemed unaware of people’s suffering as a result of Bank policies and practices. He claimed that “unlike any government that has resettled people for hundreds of years…we resettle even squatters. So guess what happens when we announce that a project is going to happen in an area? People move in!”
President Kim’s response to this issue is particularly troubling. Although the Bank has publicly acknowledged failures in its own practice, its longstanding and appalling mismanagement of resettlement continues to harm communities.
In late September, Kim was unanimously re-appointed for a second term as World Bank President; in a process that has been criticized for its lack of transparency. In a statement following his re-appointment, President Kim commented on building “a more inclusive world, free of poverty.” Yet, if the town hall is any indication, President Kim’s (and by extension the World Bank’s) understanding of “inclusive” is still missing the point.
Countries around the world are witnessing a closing of civil society space and increased reprisals against environmental and human rights activists. When asked about his personal commitment to citizen engagement, President Kim’s commented to the moderator. “You disallowed that question — thank you very much.” President Kim’s defiant interactions are sorely out of step with the leadership needed to combat the shrinking space for participatory, sustainable, and accountable development.
Meaningful dialogue and a community-centered approach must include the voices of the communities Bank-funded projects aim to support. People travel to the Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC to raise concerns about projects especially when private companies or their own governments are not responsive. If that space is not available during the Bank’s annual meetings, and if community concerns are not respected from the highest leadership in the Bank, where do people turn?