How is the World Bank responding to fragile situations? A reflection on the institution's annual meetings

Encouraging and enabling international institutions to better support peace and security in fragile and conflict-affected contexts is a crucial part of International Alert’s work and we have been working with the World Bank on development financing and peacebuilding since 2007. Earlier this month we took part in the Civil Society Forum at the World Bank annual meetings in Washington DC, an event that brings together NGOs and high-level representatives from the bank through panel sessions and discussion groups.

Alert hosted a panel on ‘Matching money and expertise: Ensuring conflict-sensitivity is top of the agenda in the World Bank’s fragile state financing’. We were delighted to have the new Senior Director of Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV), Betty Bigombe, on the panel. Bigombe was joined by Joerg Frieden, one of the institution’s 25 Executive Directors, representing a nine-country constituency, including his native Switzerland, and by the Chief Technical Specialist of the FCV team, Alexandre Marc. The panel provided the opportunity for speakers and participants to engage in an open dialogue on ideas for and challenges confronting the bank’s work in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Panellists were encouraged to speak on the basis of their personal experience and perspectives rather than representing their affiliate institutions.

The panel session also launched the new Alert report, Fragile reforms: World Bank and Asian Development Bank financing in fragile and conflict-affected situations. The report examines several World Bank experiences of conflict-sensitising project financing in fragile environments and suggests strategies for better managing the complex interaction between projects and local conflict and fragility dynamics, including complex political relationships.

In outlining her plans for the new World Bank FCV group, Bigombe acknowledged that their focus should not be just on low income countries, but also middle-income countries that suffer from sub-national violence or fragility. While she argued that more recent field experience in the Central African Republic, Ukraine and the refugee crisis in the Middle East is beginning to show that the World Bank is faster and more responsive, she recognised that local CSOs and peacebuilding organisations are much better placed to understand the local context and as such highlighted that it would seek to call on this external knowledge to support its work.

Considering the difficulties the World Bank faces when operating in countries without legitimate government or where there is political conflict, Frieden argued that it should be able to work anywhere where the government is accepted as legitimate by the international community – a view that was met with some debate by the audience and others from the institution. He pointed out that while the World Bank has comparative advantage in public financing after conflict, in some conflict environments acting only at the margins without political involvement – which is prohibited under its mandate – is not effective but is often the limit of what the institution can do.

In addition, many civil society representatives expressed concern around the role of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and its planned spending increase in fragile contexts, particularly in light of the worrying track record of some of its more recent investments – the case of Dinant in Honduras for instance.

Significantly, the new World Bank Group Strategy prioritises the development of fragile and conflict-affected states and recognises the interdependence of peacebuilding and development. Under the recent restructure the World Bank has identified five key cross-cutting thematic areas, one of which is fragility, conflict and violence, and it is also scaling up its funding to these contexts. The IFC – the arm of the World Bank that provides investment to the private sector for development projects – has committed to spending 50% more of its budget in fragile and conflict-affected states, while the recent IDA 17 replenishment pledged an increased focus of resources on the most challenging conflict environments, making the need for conflict-sensitivity expertise within the institution greater than ever.

You can see clips from the panel discussion here, find out more about our work with international institutions here and download our report, Fragile reforms, here.

Note: The panel discussion was hosted as an informal dialogue - exchange of expert views - exploring ideas for and challenges confronting the bank’s work in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Participants and panellists were encouraged to speak from their own personal experience and perspectives rather than reflecting formal positions of their affiliate institutions.