What Should the World Bank Prioritize in its Response to COVID-19?

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the World Bank Group has taken steps to mobilize a significant amount of financing to support both borrowing countries and private sector clients impacted by the economic downturn and the health emergency. While we applaud the World Bank’s swift response to the crisis, we also strongly encourage the institution to maintain robust standards for transparency and accountability, as well as managing the environmental and social risks associated with their programs. Communities must continue to have access to information about projects and programs that impact their lives, and continue to be engaged on their potential benefits and risks. 

The consequences of this crisis could be devastating for people and communities around the world at risk of losing their livelihoods or access to basic services, particularly those that are already among the most marginalized such as women, children, persons with disabilities, LQBTQI groups, and indigenous peoples. We therefore welcome the recognition by both the Bank and IFC that marginalized groups are most at risk from the effects of this crisis,[1] and urge the institution to ensure they remain a primary focus of its response, including when engaging with stakeholders and when considering who will receive project benefits.

As the Bank finds ways to quickly respond to the crisis, it should also seek out innovative ways to continue engaging with all stakeholders to ensure its projects are benefiting—and not harming—communities, and marginalized groups in particular. The rapidly evolving situation and ongoing need for social distancing will likely make stakeholder engagement more difficult, but this should also be seen as an opportunity, in the short term, for the Bank to find new ways to engage with people around the development priorities and concerns that they have for their communities—particularly around projects in sectors that will most certainly be hit the hardest, including health and education. Ensuring the crisis does not overwhelm these sectors, and the most marginalized that rely on them, will require the Bank to draw from local knowledge and expertise. 

This is also not the time for the Bank to roll back its ambitious agenda on climate change, but rather to ensure that even in a time of crisis, its projects and programs promote a long-term, sustainable development agenda that serves both people and the planet we depend on. While an urgent response to the immediate needs of the poorest countries and most marginalized communities is critically important, the Bank should take care not to act in ways that could undermine the long term sustainable development agenda in its borrowing countries. Rather, the institution should ensure it is also laying the foundation for a strong global recovery that  advances a resilient, low-carbon future along with social and environmental justice. 

The Bank should also proactively respond to any allegations of harm, and ensure that its independent accountability mechanisms—the Inspection Panel and Compliance Advisor Ombudsman—have the resources and support they need to continue responding to the needs of communities. The Inspection Panel and CAO provide critical independent oversight and accountability functions, and--when they have the resources, capacity, and support they need--can build trust in communities that have serious concerns about project risks as well as provide important problem-solving and dispute resolution services that can help mitigate conflict and ensure project benefits are shared equitably.  

The World Bank can add tremendous value to a robust, effective and expeditious international response. In doing so, however, it should not embrace a top-down approach that overlooks the real needs of communities or that fails to include marginalized groups. Instead, it should maintain high standards, seek innovative ways for engaging with communities, and prioritize the long-term sustainable development agenda it has embraced in recent years. 


[1] See quote from Philippe Le Houerou in the Bank’s initial press release, this blog post on education: Managing the impact of COVID-19 on education systems around the world: How countries are preparing, coping, and planning for recovery, and this post on particular challenges in the LAC region: COVID-19 Challenges and Response: The view from Latin America and the Caribbean, among others.