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Five ways the World Bank can improve its operations in fragile states

Written by Simon Gill


World Bank President Jim Yong Kim set out a clear challenge at the opening of the Fragility Forum in Washington in March. 'Weak states have great difficulty in delivering services to citizens,' he stated, moving on to ask, 'How do we help improve service delivery while also helping states build capacity?'

Here are five propositions for the World Bank, which directly address Dr Kim’s question and are based on lessons from ODI’s Budget Strengthening Initiative (BSI) as well as from the Bank’s own engagement in fragile states:

1. Use independent organisations to help governments in a more flexible way.

The Bank has been very effective at large scale implementation and at leveraging resources to take forward clearly defined reform programmes. However, it has not always been good at responding flexibly and adaptively to problems and opportunities as they arise, particularly in fragile states. 

Many governments need help to define and structure the kind of support they need and to engage and negotiate with the international community.  This is often better done by independent organisations who have the experience and the flexibility to play this role.

2. Don’t create monolithic reform programmes as these can stifle complementary initiatives.

Co-ordination is vital, but there may still be some functions or aspects of reform that bilateral and other agencies are better placed to take forward. If these are well co-ordinated, they will improve the functioning and implementation of the larger reform programmes.

In its haste to secure funding for large scale initiatives the Bank must ensure that it does not stifle others who may be better placed to support discrete initiatives.

3. Make effective use of different delivery agents.

Fragile contexts are not predictable.  Conflict erupts; Ebola takes hold; oil and commodity prices fall dramatically. Delivery agents need to have the flexibility to adapt and respond quickly to changing contexts.

The Bank needs to ensure that its contracts generate this flexibility and responsiveness, and that its monitoring, reporting and evaluation frameworks support – and do not penalise – adaptive working.

4. Harness strengths from different specialist areas.

The Bank’s internal reorganisation is largely complete. It now needs to demonstrate it can connect and harness different professional groups in addressing problems, identifying bottlenecks and advancing innovative solutions. Its vertical professional strength now needs to be enhanced with horizontal engagement.  

If you are seeking to improve service delivery by streamlining the financial management arrangements, are you mobilising and engaging with technical expertise across all the relevant ministries and specialists within your own organisation?

5. Maintain engagement at different levels.

My personal experience is that donors often restrict their engagement to briefing the Minister on the assumption that they will ensure that change will therefore happen. But governments in fragile states are often organisations where connections across government are not strong.

Discussions and agreements with ministers and senior staff are essential as authorisation is needed to take forward reform, but this does not make change happen by itself. The Bank needs to ensure that it undertakes multi-layered engagement to secure practical traction and change. 

The Bank has much to be proud of, and a recent seminar that highlighted its engagement in Somalia, South Sudan and Central African Republic provides some interesting lessons. Bank staff emphasised, for example, the need to maintain a focus on critical issues like making sure that basic salaries are paid on time – an essential prerequisite to more advanced reform, particularly if you want the government to engage.

But there are wider lessons that need to be learnt and action to be taken. There is a real demand for examples of reforms which have been taken forward in challenging contexts; the g7+ group of fragile states should be applauded for their recent publication (pdf) on the innovative use of aid instruments.

The spring meetings this weekend provide a fantastic opportunity for the World Bank and others to review progress made and identify changes that need to be made to the way it goes about its business. Lesson learning across the Bank needs to be translated into more effective programming and implementation in fragile states.