Saturday, April 23, 2011

Assistance to Timor-Leste – Beware of World Bankers bearing gifts

RONALD REAGAN is supposed once to have said that the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But what if you are the government? In that case, perhaps, the scariest words are “I’m from the World Bank, and I’m here to help.”

That certainly seems to have been the experience of Timor-Leste, a much-put-upon country that spent more than 200 years under Portuguese rule, then 24 under Indonesia’s and a final two under the United Nations, before eventually winning independence in 2002. Nowadays the young republic finds a number of reasons for cheer. But if the World Bank’s own review is to be believed, it deserves little credit for Timor-Leste’s progress.

When Indonesia was at last forced to give in to overwhelming demands for the independence of its then-province of East Timor, the bank moved in quickly to offer assistance. It has been assisting every since. A report from the bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, to be published next month, details the success of that assistance. Or rather, its lack of success.

Of the outcomes of the bank’s 12 self-defined strategic and operational goals, five are rated “unsatisfactory”, four “moderately unsatisfactory”, two “moderately satisfactory” and only one “highly satisfactory”. That last was, admittedly, to bring transparency and probity to the management of oil and gas revenues—no mean feat for a poor country in that particular industry. But the failures were legion.
A few quotes:

Poverty and unemployment rose significantly through most of the evaluation period and declined only after 2007 when the Government, against Bank advice, increased its spending using petroleum resources including in the form of cash transfers.

Progress on school infrastructure and textbooks was held back by using Portuguese only, a language few knew, and by the lack of teacher training. As a consequence of these two issues, a full cohort of the population may be functionally illiterate.
...strict enforcement of World Bank Group rules delayed procurement of four new hospitals for a full year.
The New York Times has more. Overall the report suggests that after the first couple of years of its intervention, when it did help to bring order to a troubled situation, the bank’s programme “overemphasised long-term institutional objectives, placing too little emphasis on short-term interventions that would yield immediate benefits to the population.” In other words, being bureaucrats themselves, the bank’s officials in Timor-Leste tended to see more bureaucracy as the answer. Just the sort of thing that scared Reagan.

Full marks to the bank, then, for the candour of its self-criticism. Two out of ten, though, for actually achieving its goals. By Banyan for The Economist

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