How has the World Bank strengthened its response to gender-based violence?

As part of the international community’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, the World Bank Inspection Panel hosted a virtual discussion about lessons learned for GBV prevention in development projects. BIC’s Executive Director shared insight from BIC’s experience monitoring GBV and the essential role of civil society in promoting gender equality.

On December 9, 2020, BIC’s Executive Director, Elana Berger, participated in a virtual discussion on the World Bank’s response to gender-based violence (GBV) in which she emphasized the critical role played by communities and civil society in pushing the World Bank to address GBV. Organized by the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, the event looked at changes made at the World Bank in the wake of the Panel’s investigation into the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project (TSDP). Panelists emphasized the need for a survivor-centered approach to preventing GBV and the importance of pursuing projects that highlight gender-inclusive infrastructure. The session also reinforced the value of civil society organizations (CSOs) in holding the Bank accountable and facilitating broader partnerships for gender equality and GBV prevention. 

The discussion centered around the lessons learned and changes instituted as a result of two Bank-financed projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. The TSDP, which BIC helped bring to the attention of the Bank and supported communities in filing a complaint at the Inspection Panel, prompted significant changes in the Bank’s policies on GBV. In early 2014, BIC heard from Joy for Children about high rates of teen pregnancy and increased school drop outs along the World Bank-funded roadway. Initially, the Bank treated BIC and Joy for Children’s concerns as obstacles in implementation of their projects  instead of recognizing the legitimate failing of project design and implementation. After months of the Bank and government dismissing the community's concerns, the community filed a complaint with the Inspection Panel, which led to a notable shift in the Bank’s response to the situation. Berger noted that the Panel made civil society a critical partner in the process and facilitated constructive dialogue, thereby prompting Bank staff to engage with CSOs as well. 

Over the past five years, the Bank has adopted a series of measures to provide redress to communities and reform the institution to better prevent and respond to GBV in projects. However, Berger noted that none of this would’ve happened without steadfast pressure from civil society and the bravery of Joy for Children and the Bigodi community. Despite the commendable changes the Bank made in response to the Uganda project, the Bank continues to fail to value civil society as a key stakeholder in reform. Berger highlighted that the Bank frequently develops GBV policies without consulting CSOs or providing entry points for CSO participation. CSOs often have suggestions to prevent GBV, but because they are unable to engage with the Bank, they cannot provide the benefit of their knowledge. While the Bank seems to have learned lessons in terms of GBV prevention, they must still learn to engage early and often with CSOs to make development work better for all. 

Berger also emphasized that the Bank should be conducting consultations and sharing project information with communities through a variety of means. However, in many cases communities remain unaware of the Bank’s involvement in the project and lack information about project-level grievance mechanisms or the Inspection Panel as avenues for reporting cases of GBV. Berger also raised concerns that CSOs are often seen as an obstacle to project completion when they should be seen as a partner and resource in development. The Bank must consider how to promote a cultural shift across the Bank and country offices, not just through quick trainings and policy documents, to emphasize why GBV, and the mistreatment of marginalized groups more broadly, should be a priority for the Bank to improve development. 

The discussion also featured insight from other advocates for GBV prevention. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, provided the opening remarks, emphasizing that international institutions must do all they can to ensure they do not harm those they are meant to serve. She underscored the need for all GBV responses to include accountability and redress that acknowledges responsibility, so victims can regain their rights and dignity. Koen Davidse, Executive Director for the Netherlands at the World Bank, moderated the panel, underscoring the support from the Bank’s Board of Executive Directors which has always been critical for reform at the institution. Moses Ntenga, Founder and Director of Joy for Children, shared the experience of the community affected by the Uganda project, highlighting the importance of the Panel listening to the needs of the community. Although some members of the community did not receive enough support, the recognition of their complaints and right to redress sparked hope for change. They successfully brought GBV issues to the center of the Bank’s discussions, ultimately creating institutional reforms.

Imrana Jalal, head of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, shared the seven key insights from the Panel’s recently released report, Responding to Project Gender-Based Violence Complaints Through an Independent Accountability Mechanism. The report concludes that survivor-centered approaches and gender-inclusive infrastructure are critically necessary as they directly impact women’s empowerment. The Inspection Panel and other independent accountability mechanisms (IAM) should serve as an additional avenue and safe space for victims of project-related GBV, and IAM investigations of GBV should always operate on the premise that victims’ complaints are plausible. Jalal also acknowledged BIC and Joy for Children as important catalysts for change, recognizing that complaints seeking accountability, remedy, and institutional action due to project-related GBV can have positive and long-lasting effects on development institutions and those they serve.

Maninder Gill, Global Director of the Environmental and Social Framework at the World Bank, provided further context on the Bank’s reforms, reiterating the need for a survivor-centered approach as the Bank aims to address GBV in project design and implementation. Gill also recognized the key role that local communities and civil society play as critics and allies, enabling the Bank to make progress as an institution and reinforcing the need for constant learning and humility as the Bank strives to improve its development. Dubravka Simonovic, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, raised the issue of parallel pandemics of GBV against women and COVID-19, which has exposed preexisting inequalities. 

BIC appreciated the opportunity to participate in the discussion and share our experiences advocating for GBV prevention at the Bank. You can watch the full discussion here and sign up for more updates about BIC’s work on amplifying the voices of communities in development here