World Bank Nudged on Environment Issues

THE bearded man sat in the middle of the driveway to the Sheraton Washington Hotel, blocking a line of limousines carrying financial leaders from various nations. Two policeman picked him up by the arms and hauled him off. The demonstrator was objecting to environmental policies of the World Bank during last month's annual meeting in Washington of that 152-nation institution. At that time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from more than 50 countries staged an alternative series of meetings and critical discussion. They met with Bank officials and issued an appeal for greater environmental awareness.

The Bank has not been unmindful of such criticism. A May 1987 bank reorganization created four regional environmental offices and a central department to monitor programs. Bank officials point to a 10-fold increase in environmental staff and environmental training in the organization.

``We used to have a system where we had the environmental experts evaluate the impact of projects after the fact. What we do now is put environmentalists on the staff of those who are drawing up the project,'' says Peter Riddleberger, a World Bank spokesman.

Despite this effort, many environmentalists say that the Bank is not using its considerable economic leverage to promote the welfare of the global environment.

``In the two years since the creation of the [environmental] department we haven't seen much change in overall bank policies, and only incremental changes in specific loans and in the lending program,'' says Glenn Prickett, a research associate with the National Resources Defense Council in Washington. ``The Bank has made progress and there is increased attention in the lending process on environment, but ... the attention often comes begrudgingly.''

For example, Mr. Prickett points to a forestry project loan in Sri Lanka which is cited in an environmental progress report the Bank released at its annual meeting. A brochure entitled ``Striking a Balance: The Environmental Challenge of Development'' accompanying the report cites the forestry project as an example of the Bank's willingness to cooperate with NGOs. The changes cited were the result of pressure from environmental groups, says Prickett. ``Up until the very week of the loan's approval those issues were not part of the loan,'' he says.

Many environmentalists are concerned about limited public participation in bank projects. The lack of public access to information on World Bank projects - particularly by people in the developing world who are affected by them - is ``appalling,'' says Bruce Rich, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Bank officials point out that access to information is a sticky issue in most nations. ``Although people give us a lot of credit for having a lot of leverage, the bank's leverage in countries is in fact limited. ... Governments are sovereign; we can't force governments overnight to change their priorities,'' says Jane Pratt, acting director of the bank's Environmental Department. ``There are certain NGOs that will not be satisfied unless we provide access to the document itself and that we can't do because it's not our document.''

``Bank-bashing is good business'' for advocacy environmental groups, says Pratt.

Good business or bad, environmental groups remain determined to push the link between environmental and economic welfare. While recognizing progress the bank has made, they continue their demands.

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