In a number of ways, the World Bank has been a responsible steward of the funds. Often the Bank has proven open to dialogue with various sectors of East Timorese society as well as, at times, with international NGOs. And the Bank is generally forthcoming with information about its projects. It now publishes brief project summaries in Indonesian and Tetum. More specifically, the World Bank’s East Timor Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project (CEP)—while having its problems—appears to be a generally successful endeavor in promoting grassroots democracy and local control over some small development initiatives. (See article on CEP: http://www.etan.org/lh/bulletin04.html#CEP).
Even in these areas of strength, however, there are significant limitations. Most major Bank documents concerning East Timor—including project information documents and project appraisal documents—are available only in English, thus making it difficult for the vast majority of East Timorese people to participate effectively in policy discussions. At the same time, Bank-commissioned external evaluations of its projects are not available to the public. Moreover, dialogues and consultations involving the Bank tend to be more form than substance. In the worst instances, they are highly-orchestrated events run by Bank personnel with the narrow goal of gaining support for proposals created by small groups of people. Finally, the very culture of the Bank—with its reliance on highly-paid “experts” and its corporate-style offices—are hardly inviting to outsiders and grassroots participation.
The Bank’s Agriculture Rehabilitation and Development Project (See article: http://www.etan.org/lh/bulletin04.html#Agriculture) exemplifies many of these problems. The consultation process prior to its design was totally inadequate. Of course, there has been considerable pressure from sectors of East Timorese society and various NGOs on Bank officials to accelerate the design and implementation of projects. Many have complained that the Bank has been too slow—a result of both the pace of donor disbursements into the Trust Fund and the procedures of the World Bank. It also appears, however, that pressures internal to the Bank, given the institution’s preoccupation with public relations, have led it to rush project design, and thus undermine the opportunity for greater public participation.
At the same time, the Bank defends the limited consultation for the agriculture project by arguing that emergency needs did not allow the luxury of extensive participation in the project design.
While this argument is valid for vaccinating livestock and repairing irrigation systems, it does not justify haste in non-emergency components of the project, such as the Pilot Agricultural Service Centers (PASCs). Even if these components can still be revised, they become the starting point for subsequent discussions and thus bias the dialogue, potentially undermining consideration of real alternatives. For such reasons, the non-emergency aspects of the agricultural project should not have been part of the original project agreement.
The people of East Timor need time and resources to learn from the experiences of other post-conflict and developing societies. Past development disasters—a number involving the World Bank—show the danger of allowing outside “experts” to have too much influence over East Timor’s reconstruction. Therefore, exchanges with grassroots activists from other countries who have dealt with Bank projects would be very worthwhile. (The funding needed for such exchanges could come from the Trust Fund, while local NGOs would be in charge of organizing them.)
Typically, the Bank works to establish institutions within developing countries that are autonomous from the government, while cultivating people who favor technocratic and “free market” approaches to development. In this regard, it undermines indigenous development strategies.
All too often, the Bank sees countries as empty laboratories in which it can apply its standardized policies. As the Project Appraisal Document for the agricultural project states, “[East Timor] is starting life with a clean slate.” Of course, East Timor is not a “clean slate,” but a society with a unique history, as well as its own traditions, sets of social relations, conditions, and needs. Given these factors, and the horrific trauma experienced by its people over the last 25 years, East Timor needs the space to devise its own development paths. Concerned parties must ensure that the Bank allows the various sectors of East Timorese society to play a far more significant role in the design, implementation, and oversight of projects than they have so far.
The Bank oversees a considerable amount of money in trust for the people of East Timor. It is highly unlikely that East Timor will receive so much “free” money in the foreseeable future. The Bank thus has a responsibility to ensure that discussions that lead to the design of projects (excepting perhaps non-controversial, emergency rehabilitation activities) are as extensive and inclusive as possible. This is inherently a time- and labor-intensive process, one made all the more necessary because East Timor does not have a democratically elected and controlled government.
Experience shows that concerted public pressure can influence how the Bank works. East Timor has a vibrant NGO sector, a political elite that is relatively responsive to grassroots constituencies, and a strong international solidarity movement. Working together, they can help ensure that the World Bank serves the East Timorese people’s needs, rather than vice-versa.