Accountability in Complex Organizations: World Bank Responses to Civil Society

by Alnoor S. Ebrahim & Steve Herz

Overview — What difference has civil society activism made to the World Bank? More specifically, how and to what extent have civil society actors furthered the accountability of the World Bank to its constituents? The case of the World Bank is important for 2 main reasons: The Bank has not only been a major target of civil society activism, but it has also been comparatively responsive in developing various forms of engagement with civil society, possibly more than any other multilateral institution. This paper describes key accountability challenges facing the institution and reviews accountability mechanisms currently in place at 4 different organizational levels. It then explores efforts from civil society groups to increase accountability, and notes the successes and failures of these reform efforts. Key concepts include:

  • At 2 fundamental levels—board governance and staff incentives—the potential for more meaningful accountability is greatest. Yet the deep structure of the World Bank remains largely unchanged.
  • The success of civil society in increasing accountability in the World Bank has largely been at the project and policy levels.
  • Civil society actors have been far less active in improving accountability at the staff level of the World Bank, especially in terms of altering the incentive structure for staff promotion.
  • The gaps in accountability at the level of board governance are perhaps the widest and least addressed, despite considerable attention from civil society.

Author Abstract

Civil society actors have been pushing for greater accountability of the World Bank for at least three decades. This paper outlines the range of accountability mechanisms currently in place at the World Bank along four basic levels: (1) staff, (2) project, (3) policy, and (4) board governance. We argue that civil society organizations have been influential in pushing for greater accountability at the project and policy levels, particularly through the establishment and enforcement of social and environmental safeguards and complaint and response mechanisms. But they have been much less successful in changing staff incentives for accountability to affected communities, or in improving board accountability through greater transparency in decision making, more representative vote allocation, or better parliamentary scrutiny. In other words, although civil society efforts have led to some gains in accountability with respect to Bank policies and projects, the deeper structural features of the institution—the incentives staff face and how the institution is governed—remain largely unchanged.

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