WASHINGTON - A party Thursday night to honor outgoing World Bank President James Wolfensohn for 10 years at the helm of one of the world's most powerful financial institutions has ignited disagreement among some of his critics over how to deal with the public lending agency.
Wolfensohn is scheduled to complete his second five-year term at the end of this month and is to be replaced by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on June 1.
Trouble in the activist community started to brew early last month, when four major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) critical of the bank and on occasion Wolfensohn -- the Bank Information Center (BIC), InterAction, Oxfam, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) -- issued initial invitations to partner groups to join them at a send-off for Wolfensohn.
Paul Wolfowitz (R) with outgoing World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, a US administration hawk and architect of the Iraq war set to become World Bank president. (AFP/HO/File)
The message quickly generated an angry reaction from some smaller but active groups also working to change the bank's policies, which they see as harming the poor in developing nations.
The heated reaction led BIC, a Washington-based clearinghouse for information on the lender, to withdraw from the event. Additionally, organizers changed the party's venue from WWF's offices to the high-security precincts of Capitol Hill, seat of the U.S. Congress.
Even so, by Thursday the list of sponsors had grown to also include Bread for the World, CARE, Center for International Environmental Law, American Jewish World Service, Conservation International, Save the Children, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Nor did the controversy deter other groups from signing up to attend the business-attire event.
Organizers, in messages to movement colleagues, said the idea was to host a reception to recognize Wolfensohn's ''personal role in creating space for civic engagement.''
In their initial note in April, they said they wanted to ''demonstrate the importance of this relationship'' and emphasize ''the expectation'' that it would be deepened in the future.
Bank officials welcomed the sentiment, telling IPS that among the achievements for which Wolfensohn strongly wished to be remembered was his opening the institution to civil society institutions as he moved it towards poverty reduction and social programs.
But the idea of crediting Wolfensohn for reaching out to civil society groups and joining the fight against poverty further rattled some of the development groups who said that Wolfensohn's record amounted to little more than a whitewash, or public-relations gimmick.
Any civil society involvement in the party, they argued, would enlist those groups in giving the false impression that the bank had met their demands for openness and transparency.
Some even insinuated that the bank initiated the party and that the NGOs who organized it had succumbed to the bank's attempts at window-dressing for their own gain -- including greater access and high-profile partnerships at the bank.
The bank denied the charge.
''It was not initiated by the bank,'' said Stephen Commins, senior civil society specialist at the lending agency. ''Indeed I saw the e-mail from NGO representatives proposing that they host a reception.''
Groups opposing the party sent out numerous e-mails, letters, and phone calls -- first privately then publicly -- denouncing the plan to celebrate Wolfensohn's legacy.
''Celebrating Wolfensohn in a party by some organizations that say they represent poor people actually threatens to honor him for something which he did not do,'' Shalmali Guttal, of the Bangkok-based group Focus on the Global South, told IPS.
''It is not an issue that people should be going to this meeting or to the party or not. The point is how could those organizations allow the bank to rewrite history? It undermines the struggle of people who fought for years and years,'' she added.
Some critics say that during his tenure, Wolfensohn gave no meaningful and effective access to civil society groups.
Shalmali said that thousands of grassroots organizations and communities affected by World Bank policies and projects remain sidelined by the Washington-based lender.
''The dangerous message to the World Bank's next very controversial president, Paul Wolfowitz, is clear: give civil society access to your decision-makers without making consequential policy changes, embellish your initiatives with terms such as 'poverty reduction', 'good governance', and 'democracy', and you will earn congratulations from civil society groups for imposing an agenda that continues to harm vulnerable people while enriching the privileged,'' said Doug Hellinger of the Washington-based advocacy group Development GAP.
Hellinger said a joint bank-civil society investigation into the impact of adjustment policies -- an initiative in which his group played a central role -- and examinations of the environmental impacts of the bank's financing of large dams and extractive industries all had failed because the institution refused to act on most of the recommendations these exercises generated.
The party's organizers, however, said some NGOs were failing to recognize progress made under Wolfensohn.
''Though we believe the bank still has a long way to go if it is to truly fulfill its mission to reduce poverty around the world, under Mr. Wolfensohn there has been increased dialogue with non-government and civil society groups and a move towards more open processes,'' said Caroline Green, an Oxfam spokeswoman.
WWF, also a co-sponsor, pointed to a partnership it formed with the bank that has increased the area of rainforest under protection worldwide.
''The first alliance has expired and is being renewed right about now. And I imagine that reception has something to do with the alliance,'' said Michael Ross, WWF's director of strategic communications.
From its side, the bank may be comforted to watch the debate over the reception as it indicates a broader and heated debate among some of its fiercest critics over how and to what extent they should engage the agency.
The little episode has cemented a widely held view at the bank that civil society groups are diverse and therefore not all criticism directed at the bank is necessarily representative or pressing.
''It would be wrong to say that civil society either supports or doesn't support the bank,'' Commins said. ''That homogenizes a highly diverse set of actors, and many organizations that have been critical of the bank have a nuanced view, not 'for' or 'against'.''
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service