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Daily Corinthian (MS): The World Bank is Far Too Secretive

August 12, 2005
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By Melanie Beth Oliviero, GAP International Program Director. This editorial also appreared in: Topeka Capital-Journal, Garde City Telegram (KS) and Worthington Daily Globe (MS).  

Paul Wolfowitz’s selection as World Bank president has highlighted ongoing problems at that multi-billion dollar institution. The new boss’s plate is certainly full as the Bank’s poverty-reducing programs fail routinely under mass criticism. African AIDS rates continue to rise sharply, and the Bank’s characteristically slow responses to major issues are constantly under fire and heavy scrutiny. In addition to tackling these problems, Wolfowitz has faced scores of claims that question his motives for assuming command – namely that the Bush administration seek to use the Bank as a puppet for pushing American interests.

But Wolfowitz can surely handle any media scrutiny directed toward him. What he need concern himself with are the 11,000 Bank employees. They predominantly opposed his selection. Within one week of the new boss’s nomination, the Bank received over 1,300 messages from staff about the choice, 87 percent opposed. Reasons cited included security concerns, possible effects on the Bank’s reputation, and a future lack of independence from U.S. policies. Former Bank president James Wolfensohn, though he praised Wolfowitz’s skills in public, often subtly hinted at his disapproval of the choice. In May, Wolfensohn stated that the Bank selection process should be based on merit, as opposed to the current system in which nomination power rests solely with America.

Over the past decade, allegation after allegation about incompetence, abuse and malfeasance by Bank management have surfaced, only to be met with severe reprisal. Threats, demotions and firings are commonplace as the internal structure safeguards all high-level officers. A simple solution exists for Wolfowitz to quell these criticisms of both himself and the Bank’s programs – the immediate implementation of whistleblower protection.

Transparency and accountability are the key components for credibility, yet the Bank lacks both. Does a legitimate reason exist why Bank staff is barred from speaking with oversight officials in Congress or the Department of Treasury? It is impossible for Wolfowitz to gain the trust of his staff if they are muzzled.

Employees see the Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity, created to investigate allegations of misconduct, as a tool of management primarily concerned with stifling claimants to avoid bad press. Even more frustrating, a good model for reporting problems – independent of management – currently exists in the Bank’s Inspection Panel. This panel takes complaints from a project’s community members to the Board of Directors, by passing any management interference. In a simple sense, cutting out the middleman has led to tremendous results. All Wolfowitz needs to do is apply this same principle of accountability to all Bank policies, and employee speech protection will be the new law of the land.

The United Nations, entrenched in its own scandals, is quickly learning that creating proper vehicles for workers to raise concerns is not only socially responsible, but fiscally prudent. A new Bank administration has the power to open the door to the world’s taxpayers and the creditors who support it. Who knows what future scandals may be avoided with these changes?

It is impossible to achieve the mission of fighting poverty and improving the living standards of the developing world without the full support of staff. People may disagree with the boss’s ideology, but if a truly effective system for protecting whistleblowers is adopted, criticism of both Wolfowitz and Bank practices will soften.

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