BANK'S ENVIRONMENTAL ROLE. Environmentalists say World Bank study lacks commitment

The World Bank has come under renewed attack from international environmental groups. In a letter sent to bank president Barber Conable earlier this month, representatives of citizens groups from 14 industrial countries criticized the bank's in-house study, ``Environment, Growth, and Development.'' They said the study contained ``a paucity of concrete measures and commitments'' from the Washington-based lender. The study is to be presented to the 22 finance ministers who make up the bank's governing Development Committee during a meeting here April 10.

The study was commissioned in response to a campaign by industrial country environmental groups and United States lawmakers to point up what they feel is insufficient attention from the bank on the environmental impact of the projects it funds.

World Bank officials said that the environmental groups had misinterpreted the intent of the Development Committee report. Environmental concerns have not been on the group's agenda, and the paper was designed more to familiarize the ministers with the issues than to provide recommendations, according to one senior staff member.

The environmentalists want the $80 billion institution to beef up its staff with more scientists and advisers on resource issues. Only six full-time professionals now assess the environmental impact of the $13 billion worth of bank projects approved annually.

Not only are groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resource Defense Council demanding more monitoring of projects, but they are calling for more World Bank interaction with third-world environmental groups in both project preparation and implementation, and an increase in financial resources devoted to environmentally beneficial projects.

The Development Committee report recommends that the bank pay more attention to the issues by shifting its traditional focus from a benefit-cost analysis to a focus that emphasizes environmental growth and alleviating poverty.

In addition, it says, the bank should ``increase its efforts to raise the consciousness of policymakers'' in the third world on environmental issues and to cooperate more with industrial country nongovernmental organizations. It also recommends that the bank increase its efforts ``to integrate natural-resource management'' into project preparation.

Bruce Rich, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund and the analyst who drafted the critique sent to Mr. Conable, said the action agenda in the Development Committee paper is ``grotesquely inadequate.

``The World Bank is dragging its heels on the concerns of the environmental community,'' he said. Sen. Robert Kasten (R) and Rep. David Obey (D), both of Wisconsin, and two of the most outspoken lawmakers on the bank's treatment of the environmental issue, were equally unimpressed with the effort. Senator Kasten last week sent a letter to Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III complaining of the quality of the action agenda and calling on him to press for more immediate and dramatic change at the bank.

``Every day of delay in upgrading international environmental protection means that more scarce tropical forest is lost forever,'' Kasten said. ``We are losing an entire species, causing excessive soil erosion, polluting the world's waterways, and impoverishing the people of less developed nations who must depend on basic natural resources....''

World Bank officials disagreed with the charges of foot-dragging, noting that a more comprehensive internal investigation of the bank's environmental policies had been handed over to consultants preparing a broader assessment of the institution's need for reorganization. When those consultants complete their overall study of the institution in May, said bank senior environmental adviser James Lee, Conable will likely accept those recommendations on environmental issues that are ``practical, useful, and doable.''

The bank's approach toward preserving the environment, though, will remain focused on poverty alleviation, Lee said. ``One has to look at the practicality [of the demands] given the fact we have 152 member nations,'' he explained. ``The reservations of environmental groups in industrial countries might not strike such a resonant chord among third-world representatives.''

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