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Why World Bank Needs To Read Its Own Development Report

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“Democratic Centralism entails popular participation in formulating the plan at the enterprise level.” — World Bank Romania country report, 1979

The World Bank’s “World Development Report 2017” is a remarkable document. Remarkable, because it does not seem that the World Bank authored this document titled “Governance and the Law.” When the report cites Michel Foucault, that incandescent French thinker, who showed us how supposedly free and rational institutions of modernity are indissolubly linked with power and social control, it is time to sit up and notice.

Politics And Power

This is not an accident for the central focus of the report is politics and power in development policy, and the endeavour is to move politics and power “from the margins to the core of development thinking and action” and to “development practice… health and education… transportation and food…” (p.271).

How does then a rethinking of governance for development look like? The report stresses on three key principles which differ from traditional approaches: 1) Focus not only on the right form of institutions but also on the functions of institutions. 2) Focus not only on building the capacity of institutions, but also on power asymmetries, and 3) Focus not only the rule of law but also on the role of law (p.29).

Essentially, this goes against the soul of seven decades of development thinking — technocracy — perpetrated by international development institutions controlled by the Global North. It is the belief that the mere deployment of capital and technology with the help of Western experts will solve the most intractable development problems in the poorest parts of the world.

How drastically different is the new thinking can be gauged by the scholar Bruce Rich’s assessment of the World Bank during the presidency of Robert McNamara when the bank expanded phenomenally, and its lending had increased by six times in real terms: “McNamara’s grandiose vision involved a wager that was indeed Faustian—a risky experiment with life and nature, using simplistic technologies, and a fatal hubris about the bank’s ability to know, plan and direct the evolution of human societies and the natural systems they depend on.

This Faustian notion has been the norm when it comes to conceiving and ‘executing’ development projects in the Third World whether inspired by the imagination of the American economist W.W. Rostow in the 1960s, or that of the neoliberal capitalist policy prescriptions of the Washington Consensus from the 1980s. As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar argues, incidentally using Foucault, in his influential “Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World”, the Third World is not an entity that just exists out there. But it is culturally constructed by development institutions like the World Bank, set up by the First World, as “underdeveloped” and as characterised by poverty, illiteracy and disease, and in need of help and intervention.

In this characterisation, of course, European colonisation of Asia, Africa and Latin America are simply inconvenient historical facts. Thus, development for Escobar is not just describing a reality but is also a discourse that is laden with power relations favouring those who have the ability to define reality.

Reading the report against this context is like going through a treasure trove of ironies. There is a lot in it with which those who are opposed to the development as technical fixes, and development as Northern imperialism, can agree with. The report remarkably calls for the need for public goods and public spending on health, education and infrastructure (p.167). It stresses that growing inequalities are a grave concern, that inequality has a multiplier effect, and that “ultimately, growth and inequality are jointly determined” (p.167).

For the report, development is not the expansion of economic freedom, but following Amartya Sen, is the removal of all kinds of “unfreedoms” which will ensure that governance delivers the three goals of security, growth and equity. And that too, achieved in ecologically sustainable ways (p.4). The report also gives a very nuanced account of transformation towards, as well as the deepening of, democracy, and the role of elections, political parties, citizens and civil society organizations in that. It has a very useful survey of the nature and composition of elites from 12 countries. The comparative and global nature of an exercise like the report is one of its strengths, giving us interesting pieces of information like how multi-party elections led to the reduction of infant mortality rates in Sub-Saharan Africa!

This reinforces what critics of the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions have always argued, that there is no other panacea to problems of development than real and substantive democracy. But the most important question is what has changed since the days when the bank, as Rich documents, applauded the Communist dictator Ceauşescu’s centralised economic control and state planning and helped Romania become one of its largest borrowers.

The World Bank Headquarters Complex in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

As A Social Document

The answer lies in reading the World Bank Report as a social document. It is not just about the World Bank studying society, but turning the lens back on World Bank. It is to understand that the bank is not detached from, but is part of the same social processes that it describes. Ironically, then, we have to follow what is prescribed in the report: “taking politics seriously in development points directly to the need to challenge the interests of the power holders that control institutions — something that many development organisations have not yet decided they are willing to do” (p.271).

What has changed from four decades ago is the fact that the bank is also responding to multifarious challenges and resistances to the development hegemony of the North which is secured by the participation of political and economic elite from the South. It is this hegemony that ensures that the premier development agency in the world, the World Bank, has always been headed by white males from the United States until the current president. This is when the planet is virtually kept alive by women who constitute 60% of the agriculture force in Asia and Africa. Unsurprisingly, many of the World Bank presidents have had a background working in defence departments and private corporations.

The resistances mounted by social movements have led the Bank to speak the language of the people. Hence, one sees an increasing focus on issues such as gender rights, equity (the World Development Report of 2006 was titled ‘Equity and Development’) and so on. Besides, the rise of China and India and their decreasing reliance on the bank makes the latter less powerful than before. Thus, acknowledging politics and power relations is also one way to defuse the challenges to the bank’s dominance.

There is a telling statement in the report: “The development community is talking the talk of politics. How much it will walk the walk is not yet clear.” (p.271). Ultimately, the question is, after this Report whether the World Bank itself is willing to walk the walk. A 2015 United Nations Report called the World Bank as a “human rights-free zone” and that its policies consider “human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations.

Perhaps, it is time for those who control the World Bank to read its own “World Development Report 2017”.

This article was first published here in The Hindu.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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