Human Value at the World Bank Civil Society Forum

It rained, and the world gathered, and there were intensely held views on how far what we were doing took us toward the pervasive repair the world is crying out for. But it would be inappropriate to say anything about that before noting that it was a true privilege to be one of the people with the opportunity to speak for those who could not, who were not present, or who have not so far been considered.

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Efficacy, measurement, evidence, improvement, are keywords in circulation at the World Bank, during a week of meetings hosted by civil society organizations. People want these financial institutions of global reach to show their worth, to respond to criticism and to give evidence of responsiveness. Some question why we are here, but the fact that there is hope, and opportunity, is palpable, and has to be recognized as being of historic value.

I would argue that to understand what is happening at the Civil Society Forum, one has to think less about quantifying impacts and more about the quality of experience lived by real people. While we are impatient for major change, and rightfully so, we cannot forget that we must also be patient enough to carry on with our inspiration, and to interact with the Bretton Woods institutions with clarity, direction, and with a vision for what they can and should achieve.

That clarity, direction and vision, can be negated by our impatience or our will to impose a demand. It is of historic importance that people who are committed to ideals, to better outcomes, can directly lobby institutions of global reach. These few days in Washington, DC, are an example of how civil society can directly influence global policy, and bring stakeholders’ voices to bear on what wealthy institutions do to make change in people’s lives.

It was not so long ago, just a few years, that there had never really been a time when this kind of grassroots lobbying would be expected to be considered, let alone actually take place. The Civil Society Forum allows people working for the good of others to speak directly to the decision makers at government-sponsored financial institutions of global reach—institutions that determine outcomes for hundreds of millions of people.

That alone is a great accomplishment in the evolution of mutually reinforced human freedom and dignity.

But now that we are here… now that civil society organizations can do the hard work of trying to mold, to whatever extent possible, global policy, we have to be thoughtful about what we are trying to accomplish, and how best to make this relationship not only viable, but constructive, effective and as necessary to effective governance as we hope it can be.

The importance of these discussions is not just that they present an opportunity to advance some of our cherished goals and ideas, or to influence the Bretton Woods Institutions; it is, more importantly, that they present an opportunity to demonstrate, by example, that future history can be built by a healthy, always-active, well-thought, creative and collaborative direct contact between political leaders and citizens, stakeholders and their advocates.

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The panel hosted by James Parks, of the Parksonian Institute, on entrepreneurial civil society as a response to the need for adaptive change, focused not only on whether civil society organizations could approach the difficult task of influencing global fiscal and development policy, with an entrepreneurial spirit, but also on how overcoming self-imposed limitations can allow the voices of stakeholders to rise to prominence.

One of the unnoticed dynamics at work in the Civil Society Forum, and which might drive the success and potential long-term efficacy of the process, is the essentially irrefutable efficiency of learning from actual people what you need to know to better serve their needs. The stakeholder-engagement process is still, in many ways, new to these institutions, and some still argue, publicly, that the World Bank and IMF are not chartered to interact with stakeholders, only with governments.

This is why participating, and carrying the process forward is so important. Civil society organizations have real information about “conditions on the ground”, about life at the human scale. The generalizations that governments and international bodies tend to embrace are convenient for building a framework for general policies, but to know whether actual projects are working, we need to hear from the people who are affected, or whose full-time job is examining the evidence.

We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to bear witness, on behalf of the billions who could not, to a people-centered, stakeholder-driven way of pricing carbon emissions. It was fortunate in several ways: 1) we were there; 2) we learned about our own proposal and the landscape of policy; 3) we were able to see how such policies fit into a global framework, and 4) make the case for the efficiency inherent in such a plan.

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It is impossible to understand the nature of the climate crisis without first understanding that there is always a connection between the local and the global. Our particular topic, and our particular message, actually served as a lens for our own examination of the problem dynamics related to making global policy, or policy with a global reach.

What we can see, as we learn about those dynamics, is how climate is one obvious place where the local and the global are connected, but that water, food, health, education, conflict, peacemaking, media and human rights, also exist along this continuum of overlapping interests. They are also locally global and globally local policy arenas. They require collaborative responses, in every case.

So, I feel confident that we can say that the Civil Society Forum teaches any and every astute observer that widening the pool of conceptual and practical idea-making voices builds efficiency into the planning of policies of potentially global reach.

For the convenience of implementation, some policy-makers, some governments, some factions, prefer to impose a solution with as “streamlined” a process as possible. But such actions achieve deployment of certain aspects of a given policy construct, while other aspects of the plan, or its necessary ramifications, collapse or work against the stated goal. Unilateral implementation tends to have this kind of impact.

But if one is attentive, if one goes with the intention of both sharing and learning, of bearing witness—which is to say to give testimony and also to receive it—if one allows the process to be what it can be, and does one’s part, it quickly becomes evident how much ground can be covered in just one session, in the way of redefining problematic governing concepts and terms.

There is, in that, the beginnings of substantive effective reform that can save lives, provide for the future thriving of marginal communities, actively reduce poverty and build sustainable practices into our global community—even as we continue the eternal struggle against corruption, ignorance and violence.

The Civil Society Team, under the leadership of John Garrison, has consistently organized a highly professional, constructive, and smoothly run, cooperative environment in which dialogue between stakeholders, civil society organizations and the Bretton Woods Institutions, can take center stage, in the run-up to the high-level policy meetings of the World Bank and IMF. And though steering such a big ship takes time, those of us who have participated have to admit: this is an historic development and a lever for enhancing democratic governance and for putting the human voice at the center of global policy discussion.

We must make sure to keep building momentum, keep improving the process, and do our best to forge a reliable framework for ever better outcomes for human beings, at the human scale.

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Originally published October 17, 2013, at PoetEconomist.com

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