Influencing institutions


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INSTITUTIONS matter. Governments and parliaments make laws, but the institutions that implement them determine whether they are real or fictitious. Influencing what institutions do is important, but even more critical is influencing how institutions function – their culture, reward systems and so on. The civil society organisations (CSOs) have provided some basic lessons relating to the right of people to influence institutions, and how to exercise that right.

To influence what institutions do is not necessarily easy, but some of the fundamentals are evident. CSOs must present a well-worked out case based on sound research, strong local knowledge, and grassroots experience of what will work and alternatives that are reasonable. And they must present the case professionally, with support and testimony from well-placed allies. They need to provide working examples of a different way of doing business.

Examples such as the work of Chipko have shown that people can be true conservators of forests. But institutions are inherently averse to change and so a second prong is needed: the demonstration of a groundswell of public opinion supported by politicians, the media and others. This will make the institutional leaders realise that – like it or not – the political will and imperative for change has arrived.

What is more difficult is influencing how institutions operate. This can be understood in terms of ‘good governance’ – now an established development field. It has four elements, and citizen groups can play a key role in all of them.

Transparency: The public, especially those influenced directly, have a right to know not just what an institution has done, but also what it plans to do – its budget, analysis and proposals. CSOs can ensure this information is winkled out and gets to the public, not left in obscure parliamentary reports; they can test the information for accuracy and objectivity; they can advise the public where it is fair or bogus. NGOs have, for example, pressed the World Bank to change its disclosure policy, making much previously confidential material public.

Accountability: Formally institutions are accountable to boards, ministers, parliamentary committees and so on. Citizens’ organisations can help put teeth into that accountability to make it work. For example DISHA in Gujarat has independently analysed the state government’s budget, and this has greatly informed the assembly debate in Gandhinagar. CSOs can present independent evidence, and they can establish independent watchdog organisations, such as the NGO Working Group on the World Bank.



Predictability and the rule of law: Institutions should be governed by clear rules which are effectively and uniformly implemented, without discrimination. CSOs can help make this so, both by providing witness where there is bias, and by aiding affected citizens to get fair treatment. For example, NGOs have pressed for dalit women to have legal ownership rights to land. Many NGOs, including in India, have lobbied the World Bank about the social costs of projects it finances, and have not only initiated important changes in those projects, but also instigated the setting up of the Inspection Panel, an independent tribunal to ensure due process for those hurt by Bank funded projects.

Voice: All institutions should have mechanisms to ensure that everyone has a chance to influence decisions that directly affect them. It can be done by encouraging and helping institutions to use participatory approaches, not just during a project’s implementation but also during the design stage, and even in the Bank’s strategic planning and analytical work. NGOs elsewhere have raised voices of tribal peoples against the theft by transnational corporations of their traditional knowledge, for example, over herbal medicines.

No inter-governmental organisation has experienced a more diverse relationship with civil society than the World Bank – ranging from close collaboration to hostility. This paper examines the evolving threads of that relationship and how it has impacted the Bank’s programmes, policies, operational norms and institutional culture. Civil society organisations of different forms have had a profound impact on many aspects of the Bank’s business and have exposed and widened the heterogeneity inherent in an institution whose professional staff is drawn from a wide variety of disciplines and whose management ethos encourages innovation.

In its operations, including country level analytical and research work, the Bank now frequently works with CSOs, in particular community based organisations (CBOs), local and international NGOs, foundations and independent think tanks. In its dialogue with civil society on practices, policies and paradigms, the Bank has found the ride much rougher. Advocacy groups, NGOs with research and lobbying capacity, trade unions, politically linked think tanks, and religious bodies have raised a wide array of issues and influenced considerable change, but the disputes have often been bitter.

In shifting to a more poverty focused agenda and in seeking to make peace with CSOs, the Bank has focused more and more on ‘soft’ development issues, such as vulnerable groups, basic social services, gender equity, environmental protection, inclusion, participation and community-driven development.



Prior to the 1980s, CSOs gave little attention to the Bank. Thereafter, with its new poverty-reduction mandate, the Bank sought to increase operational links. NGOs were typically viewed as potential low-cost subcontractors that could be engaged at the project implementation stage to deliver services to hard-to-reach groups. At the same time a parallel phenomenon emerged: hard-hitting CSO criticisms of perceived negative environmental and social impacts of many operations, particularly adjustment programmes designed to help countries in economic crisis restore balance.1



These campaigns of the 1980s threatened parliamentary support for the Bank’s budget replenishments in some northern countries (especially the USA), and it realized it was time to seek peace and mount a more credible public defence. At the same time, Bank staff who shared a vision of participatory development were carving out stronger, more partnership-based links with NGOs and community groups, which started at the project concept stage and emphasized community empowerment and people’s choice.

Paradoxically, although 1994 was a low-point in terms of the Bank’s public image – due to a widespread opposition campaign that greeted its 50th anniversary – this moment also brought a more constructive strategy for Bank-CS relations. The new approach has helped tone down the hostility and enable a more reasoned dialogue with its critics. Progress was due to a number of factors, chief of which was the leadership of James Wolfensohn, appointed Bank President in 1995, who engaged earnestly with leading Bank critics and met CS leaders wherever he travelled. He insisted the Bank take critics at face value, agreeing sometimes to work together – as in mounting the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative, in which the Bank and a global CS alliance are jointly analysing the impact of adjustment in a range of countries.

The Bank’s civil society strategy has had five strands.2 First, it has improved and expanded operational collaboration, emphasizing early CS involvement in project design, up-front treatment of concerns about negative impacts, and enhanced use of participatory development approaches (guided by a high-profile, internal ‘learning group’, and also by the participation sub-group of the NGO-World Bank led by PRIA). Second, the Bank has engaged CS in country-level strategy and policy formulation, in particular through participatory or consultative approaches to sector studies, poverty assessments and country lending strategies.



Third, a new disclosure policy has made public a much wider array of information, particularly in developing countries (increasingly in local languages), about the Bank’s programmes and analysis. Fourth, the Bank has been proactive in establishing international, structured dialogue on major topics and policy initiatives, including ongoing consultative forums concerning gender, the environment, forest protection, debt relief, and population activities. Shifting from ad hoc, reactive dialogue with CS helped ensure that the Bank was less exclusively focused on Washington groups, that southern voices were well represented, that the Bank became more influential and, therefore, more respected by CS.

Fifth, the Bank has sought opportunities in its policy dialogue with governments to urge greater respect and tolerance of civil society, and admission of CSOs into significant policy forums (such as Consultative Group meetings with donors). By inviting government participation in its discussions with civil society, the Bank has often brokered policy ‘trialogue’ in which – perhaps for the first time – government discusses serious policy issues with its own civil society. The Bank has often urged governments to foster a more enabling policy environment for CSOs by reforming laws and policies.



Critical to this five-pronged strategy have been efforts to reach out to southern CSOs, especially those who work with the poor, for which the Bank needed fuller knowledge of the sector. Hence, from 1994 onwards, the Bank started appointing NGO/civil society specialists in its Resident Missions. Now, most field offices have such a specialist, who usually comes from a civil society or related background. As a result the Bank has become much more familiar with CS, its views and personalities. While major differences persist, in most countries there is now more constructive dialogue, and as a result the Bank frequently modifies its work to accommodate CSO ideas.

In Washington, too, Bank staff engages more substantially with CSOs. The units responsible for regional management and sector policies often employ CS specialists, and so through-out the institution about 90 staff now have CS issues as their primary focus. Copious management signals make it clear that staff is expected to be responsive to CSOs who express interest or concerns. As one old hand recently put it, ‘When I joined the World Bank you could be sacked for talking with an NGO; now you can be sacked if you don’t.’

It is very rare that the Bank holds a conference or establishes a working group without CS representation. New policy papers get copied in draft stage to selected CSO specialists for their comments. CSO speakers are frequently invited to give seminars or make presentations at Bank events. NGOs may get detailed briefings on confidential documents and may in some cases have much greater access to top Bank managers than do its senior staff.

Something of a backlash occurred in 1997. A number of Executive Directors (the permanent representatives of governments on the Bank’s Board) argued that the Bank had gone too far, that it now listened more to NGOs than to them. Representatives of the developing countries in particular felt that their own role was undermined by the frequent practice of civil society consultation prior to Board deliberations. The following months saw considerable discussion and the painful evolution of a revised Bank strategy toward civil society.3



The Bank continued to seek stronger operational links with experienced NGOs and to build dialogue on controversial policy matters, but it gave much more attention to bringing governments into these arrangements and to analysing and describing the important contribution civil society can make to development through practical partnership, shaping public policy, advocacy and strengthening instruments of ‘good governance’. This internal controversy was a salutary reminder of the pitfalls of trying to move faster than the member governments wanted.

Many CS campaigns seek to influence the direct role of the Bank, that is, specific operations or analytical work. In addition, some hope to impact the Bank’s broader policy-shaping role, especially regarding the processes and institutions of global finance.4 The latter role is largely indirect, under-taken as the Bank encourages borrowers to open markets and reform their financial sectors, and as it provides ‘seals of approval’ for economic policy. Civil society can influence both the direct and indirect roles of the Bank, especially by acting through global networks. CSOs can:

* Elevate items on the international agenda by influencing public opinion and the media, as witnessed in the campaign for debt relief

* Promote economic alternatives, as illustrated by campaigns for a Tobin tax and ‘heterodox’ forms of structural adjustment

* Inject local knowledge and foster grassroots contacts to influence the Bank’s lending operations, e.g., opposing specific projects on social grounds or promoting popular participation;

* Strengthen mechanisms of governance, by promoting greater public accountability, transparency, due process and voice, both within the Bank and in borrowing countries. Examples in this regard include campaigns for greater Bank disclosure, for an independent inspection panel, and for weeding out corruption from loans to Indonesia

* Offer alternative conduits for development resources, such as in the provision of services, in social funds, and in participatory project processes.5

In these activities CSOs have displayed varying quality, often weakly correlated with policy impact. Some CSOs draw on impressive field experience, while others have none. Some relay the experience and insights of their grassroots partners, while others are purely northern associations with few contacts in the South. Some CSOs have large memberships, while others are small cliques. Some practice democratic decision-making, while others are autocratic. Some have sophisticated research and policy wings, while others launch high-profile media campaigns backed by flimsy evidence.



The strength of civil society varies enormously from country to country and hence there is inherent geographic inequity in people’s ability to influence global (or national) decisions through citizens’ organisations. In some countries such as the UK or the Philippines, civil society is advanced, strong and diverse. In others such as Japan or Congo it is weak. In still others such as Saudi Arabia or Vietnam civil society is virtually nonexistent. Access to resources, technical skills and influential media is generally far greater in the North than the South; hence power differentials in civil society parallel those in other aspects of world politics.6

Two factors might explain why civil society criticism of the World Bank remains at high pitch. First, the Bank is a convenient icon of the prevailing global economic system that is inherently unjust and has failed the poor. The second factor in continuing criticism is a yawning gap that many Bank watchers describe between what the Bank says and what it does. Most CSOs accept much of the rhetoric and many recent policies. They recognise NGO-like language in these statements, but therein lies the rub. Many argue that the Bank is hijacking CS language, that it means very different things by the terms, and that it further devalues the currency during implementation. In short, CS leaders think the Bank is trying to pull the rug out from under them.



Civil society is without question much more powerful today than just a few years ago; but every action meets a reaction. Today, there is a backlash. Leading officials and ministers are increasingly irritated by the riots greeting every big international meeting, at the tendency of the press to give more space to NGO views than theirs, and at how CSOs have propelled themselves into critical decision-making spaces. Many (but not all) resent the erosion of their previously unchallenged authority. And they are fighting back. This is a warning, to avoid seeing government institutions invariably as enemies.

Conservative elements are asking of CSOs, ‘What right do you have to meddle in our business?’ That answer is easy: ‘We have a right, because that is what democracy is about; and your business is ours too!’ But with rights come responsibilities and the continuing effectiveness of CSOs to curry influence depends on how well they are able to answer four difficult questions being posed.

* What is their legitimacy? This rests in the CSO’s track record, the reputation it enjoys, its integrity, local knowledge and proximity to the poor. It needs to demonstrate these things, not just assert its views.

* Who do they represent? Parliamentarians and governments are clear who put them where they are today: the voting public (at least in democracies); they claim to have a popular mandate that most NGO workers don’t. Membership CSOs may speak on behalf of their members, but most can just speak for themselves, or about their experiences. This is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for CSOs who have worked closely with the poor for a long time and who use participatory methods. The important thing is to not pretend they are something they aren’t; or to infer that they can speak for people who haven’t given them that mandate.

* Where’s their accountability? Few NGOs include poor people in their accountability mechanisms; they might challenge the governance of large institutions, but aren’t necessarily any better. The more they challenge officialdom the greater this paradox, will be made to appear.

* Are they just troublemakers? Pressure to stop activities, to drop policies that offend, or to sack offending officials all have their place. But the institution will become defensive and avoid CSOs if they only attack it. All institutions are like cities; they have good people and bad. Smart influencing includes building links with progressive people inside, signalling to the leadership the good things being done (and by who) and urging them to ensure it is multiplied. It means campaigning for what the institution could do in a better future. It is about inspiring the leaders to be inspiring.

The experiences of civil society institutions demonstrate that their leadership successfully manages significant organisations. They have achieved change not just by making announcements about what their organisation must stop doing, not just by chastising staff for their failures. They reward innovators, celebrate new breakthroughs, and inspire staff with a vision of what they could do tomorrow. Similar approaches need to be followed to help the leaders of institutions do the same. Instead of being just a troublemaker, it is imperative to be a vision-maker.



1. B. Rich, Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment and the Crisis of Development. Beacon Press, Boston, 1994.

2. World Bank, NGOs and the Bank. NGO Unit, World Bank, Washington DC, 1996.

3. World Bank, The Bank’s Relationship with NGOs. World Bank, Washington DC, 1998.

4. F. Santa Ana (ed.), The State and the Market: Essays on a Socially Oriented Philippine Economy. Action for Economic Reforms, Manila, 1998.

5. C. Malena, Working with NGOs: a Practical Guide to Operational Collaboration between the World Bank and NGOs. Washington DC, World Bank, 1995.

6. M. Edwards and D. Hulme (eds), NGO Performance and Accountability: Beyond the Magic Bullet. Earthscan, London and Kumarian Press, West Hartford, 1995.