CSOs Lambast World Bank for 'Hasty' Grant to Burma

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 November 2012

RANGOON — Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Burma are taking the World Bank to task for its decision last week to grant the country US $80 million in development assistance, saying that the Washington-based financial institution had ignored its own polices in making the move.

At a press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday, representatives from 23 CSOs said that the bank’s decision to provide funding to Burma for community-driven development (CDD) projects lacked transparency.

It was also unclear, they said, whether the bank had taken into account issues such as ethnic conflict and endemic corruption.

Last Thursday, the World Bank Group’s board of directors formally approved an 18-month interim strategy to provide aid that it said would deliver “quick benefits to the poor and vulnerable” through a host of infrastructure projects around the country.

According to the bank, the program will “empower rural communities to choose investments they need most, such as roads, bridges, irrigation systems, schools, health clinics or rural markets.”

However, the CSO representatives said that the confirmation of the grant was done in haste, raising questions about whether the projects chosen for funding are well designed to meet the interests of people in local communities.

Si Thu Maung, coordinator of a CSO called the Community Management Center, said that under the bank’s own rules, any project to be carried out must be made public 30 days in advance in the language of the region where it is to be implemented.

“That didn’t happen in this case at all, so the project’s transparency is questionable, and the bank is not following its own rules,” he said.

Thet Swe Win, the program director for the Myanmar Youth Empowerment Program, called the bank’s decision to provide funding for the projects without prior consultation “premature,” and said that it violated its stated commitment to transparency.

Khin Ohmar from the Burma Partnership, a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, said that the World Bank and Asian Development Bank generally make social and environmental assessments available to the public prior to implementing projects.

“It’s their policy to share this information before the onset of a project. Why is the World Bank withholding this information about the CDD [projects]?” she asked.

Despite their misgivings about how the program has been rolled out, however, the CSOs said that they weren’t completely opposed to the World Bank’s plans in Burma.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to the project. We know it’s for the good of our people. We just want to make sure that the bank follows every step, because we want only sustainable development in our country,” said Si Thu Maung.

In response to an email from The Irrawaddy, Kanthan Shankar, the World Bank’s country manager for Burma, said that transparency is key to the bank’s work in the country, and that the full project paper was made available on its website immediately following approval by its board, in accord with the bank’s information policy.

“The board approval of the project just marks a first step in a process and paves the way for further consultations with civil society and local communities. Consultations are at the heart of our re-engagement in Myanmar. The World Bank is committed to full and broad-based consultations, as we continue to work with government counterparts to ready this project for implementation,” he said.

In August, the World Bank opened an office in Rangoon to resume its work in Burma after a 25-year absence. The bank is one of several multilateral lenders that have re-engaged with the country since a nominally civilian government took power last year and began implementing a political and economic overhaul.