Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WB Starts Web Site for Critics

WASHINGTON -- The World Bank makes poverty worse, helps corrupt governments and serves the global economy rather than the people.

These criticisms are not lifted from leaflets at the latest anti-globalization rally in Washington; they are posted on the World Bank's own web site as part of an electronic conference it says is aimed at stimulating debate on development issues.

But critics say the online conference, the latest of two dozen the Bank has hosted in 18 months, is just window dressing for an institution that shows no signs of changing its ways.

"The Bank is attempting to give a semblance of listening to its critics, but it is very difficult to distinguish between true efforts at reform and pure cosmetics," said Adam Lerrick, who was senior adviser to the chair of the Meltzer Commission.

"It is a one-way conversation," said Charles Calomiris, a member of the commission, which recommended radical reforms of the Bank and International Monetary Fund to Congress in March. "What is needed is a two-way conversation. I don't see the attitude there as really open to fundamental criticism."

The World Bank was created along with the IMF in 1944 to help Europe rebuild after World War II. It later shifted its focus to economic development and now loans money to fund projects in developing countries.

Criticism of the Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization boiled over in recent months, with thousands of protesters disrupting December WTO talks in Seattle and April's IMF and World Bank spring meeting in Washington.

Two weeks into its monthlong electronic conference, the Bank has posted more than 100 messages, a selection of those it has received. Some of the criticism is stinging.

Eunice Kazembe, Malawi's Ambassador to Taiwan, refers to "the dehumanization and indignity that supposedly well-meaning initiatives of the World Bank, IMF, WTO and such institutions can promote."

Fulbright scholar Vanessa von Struensee writes that structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF destroy small farms and businesses, while anthropologist Linda Oldham ridicules a World Bank economist who told her Upper Egypt had too few people to support industry - but did not know what its population was.

"I hope the fact that we are not hesitating to post views very critical to the bank shows we are trying to get a serious discussion going," said Kerry McNamara, who runs the online conference for the World Bank Institute.

"I think there is a sincere desire on the part of some, including [World Bank President] James Wolfensohn, to open up," said Errol Mendes, law professor and director of the Human Rights Center at Canada's University of Ottawa.

Mendes said the World Bank had learned many lessons from past mistakes, largely as a result of efforts begun in the 1980s to consult with nongovernmental organizations on the environmental and social impact of lending projects.

"They learned maybe at the expense of the most vulnerable parts of society in those countries, but they have learned," said Mendes, who has followed and contributed to the electronic conference.

McNamara said he has seen a growing desire for openness in the four years he has worked at the Bank. "It isn't always easy to open up. Large institutions change slowly," he said.

At least two conference participants asked in postings for a response from the Bank.

One of them was Herman Daly, a university of Maryland professor and former World Bank senior economist, who wrote: "I hope the Bank will entrust the task of responding to the discussion to the office of the chief economist, not to the public relations department."

But it is not clear the Bank will be reacting at all. Its spokesman Phillip Hay said the Bank had not learned anything from the online discussion that it had not heard before.

"Many of those opinions on the web site are ones we heard on a megaphone very loud and clear," he said. "But it allows people to register their views and exchange information."

So just where does the information go?

"Obviously the Bank can't and won't say it will take the recommendations of this discussion and adopt them," McNamara said. But he said more than 125 staff members had signed up to participate in the discussion and he distributes weekly summaries to Bank management.

"These ideas will get in front of the management," he said.

The University of Ottawa's Mendes believes soliciting opinions and not heeding them could prove counter-productive. "The one warning I would give to the World Bank is: Do not just harvest opinions. Harvesting opinions can produce an even bigger backlash."

That backlash may reach a head in the Czech capital Prague in September when the IMF and World Bank hold their next annual meeting. Activist Kevin Danaher, whose Global Exchange group was instrumental in getting protesters to Seattle and Washington, said he is betting on a turnout of at least tens of thousands in Prague.

The World Bank's online conference is located at