The World Bank remains the largest international financial institution in the world. This case study examines the effectiveness of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel. The Inspection Panel makes it possible for citizens and communities to challenge World Bank projects through an independently administered accountability process. Between 1994 and 2016, the World Bank Inspection Panel has received 112 requests for inspection across more than 50 countries. This case study analyzes the history, dynamics, benefits, and barriers to the Inspection Panel, including an assessment of World Bank projects spread across Albania, Argentina, Bangladesh, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Nepal, Nigeria, Romania, Tibet, Togo, and Uzbekistan. On doing so, this case study highlights how Inspection Panels like the one operating at the World Bank can improve and enhance governance outcomes and result in more equitable decision-making processes. Yet there are also limits to what such independent accountability mechanisms can accomplish.
The case study of the Inspection Panel offers three lessons related to (1) World Bank operations, (2) institutional transparency, and (3) democratic and citizen-driven accountability. First, we learn about the biggest international financial institution or multilateral development bank in the world, the World Bank Group, as well as projects analyzed across Albania, Argentina, Bangladesh, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Nepal, Nigeria, Romania, Tibet, Togo, and Uzbekistan. Second, while much literature assesses personal accountability or professional accountability, here we examine institutional transparency or accountability, which is less frequently investigated. Third, the Inspection Panel is structured in a way that it is generally participatory and inclusive. It coordinates multiple actors at multiple scales and attempts to provide consensus-oriented, deliberative processes. These can involve government stakeholders, affected communities, private sector actors, management at the World Bank, and other institutions. The case therefore offers a chance to test whether decentralized, citizen-driven accountability is effective or desirable.
Inspection Panels (IPs) are an “Independent Accountability Mechanism” that make it possible for citizens and communities to “challenge decisions of international bodies through a clear and independently administered accountability and recourse process” . But how well do they work? Synthesizing and extending from previously published work [2, 3], this case study qualitatively examines the World Bank’s IP, the world’s first , largest, and longest running IP [5–10]. It asks what types of accountability does the IP promote? What are some of the tangible benefits that result from the IP? What challenges continue to hamper its effectiveness? And, critically, what lessons does it offer?
In exploring these questions, the case study focuses on the performance of the World Bank Group (WBG). The WBG is a multilateral institution that provides loans and credit to developing countries to stimulate social and economic development in a stated attempt to address poverty. With billions in loans, grants, equity investments, and loan guarantees, the WBG is the largest international development bank in the world . Due to its size and scale, the WBG is a major financier of infrastructure and poverty alleviation projects around the world—an institution that literally affects hundreds of millions of people each year.
THE HISTORY AND DYNAMICS OF THE WORLD BANK’S INSPECTION PANEL
Although the precise drivers behind the creation of the IP are difficult to pinpoint chronologically, momentum for improved institutional accountability certainly solidified as early as the 1970s. When it was created at the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, the WBG was intended to serve as an organization that would promote the reconstruction of European economies after World War II, and for the first three decades of its existence, it fulfilled this fairly simple mission. However, Zalcberg  noted that in the 1970s, the breakdown of the Bretton Woods exchange-rate system created serious economic issues for many developing countries, especially those in debt, and the WBG began to morph into its new mission of a funding institution as well as a development and aid agency with a portfolio spread across tasks as diverse as post conflict reconstruction, biodiversity, crime, and public participation in development planning. This expanded mission, however, generated significant tensions, and this period came to be known as the “decade of debacles” as WBG financed projects encountered resistance from local communities or generated deleterious social and economic impacts.
The germination for the IP in particular began in the 1980s when nongovernmental organizations began criticizing the WBG for violating its own policies concerning involuntary resettlement (established in 1982), tribal peoples (created in 1982), and environmental impact assessment (formed in 1988) . The Sardar Sarovar Dam and Canal projects on the Narmada River in India served as a flashpoint for these concerns, as they involved the forced relocation and resettlement of more than 120,000 people and induced significant environmental harm. The largest of these, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, submerged 37,000 hectares of land and required the evacuation and resettlement of 245 villages, almost all of them home to indigenous peoples, across the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. The Canal network, similarly, necessitated the clearing of 80,000 hectares of land for construction . The WBG approved funding for these projects throughout 1980s but continued to make disbursements even after civil society groups raised social and environmental concerns. By the early 1990s, the WBG was “under attack”  and had become “a lightning rod for transnational protest” . An early NGO proposal also called for the creation of a permanent independent mechanism that would respond to and investigate complaints from project-affected peoples .
As a response to the ensuing outcry, then WBG President Barber Conable created an independent commission to review the Indian projects in 1991 to be headed by Branford Morse, a retired senior administrator from the United Nations Development Program, and Thomas Berger, a former Supreme Court Justice from British Columbia, Canada. The commission released a report, informally known as the “Morse Commission Report,” in 1992 and identified “serious compliance failures” by the WBG as well as “devastating human and environmental consequences of those violations” . Follow-up investigations across the WBG’s entire portfolio implied that managers habitually failed to carry out the organization’s goals of poverty alleviation and environmental protection. Even the WBG’s own 1992 internal review of its lending practices, known as the Wapenhans Report, concluded that the WBG was “suffering from a performance crisis” with almost 40% of projects scoring “unsatisfactory” ratings, widespread defaults on loans, and an overall “culture of approval” that prioritized making loans at the expense of local communities and preserving ecosystems . Part of the explanation was that managers were rewarded for moving as many projects as possible forward but were not penalized if those projects suffered from poor design or shortcomings in accommodating local peoples. The implication was that the WBG’s violations of its procedures symbolized a systematic failure on the part of bank management .
Therefore, the WBG Executive Board established the IP in September 1993 as an “Independent Accountability Mechanism” to commence operations on August 1, 1994. The role of the IP was to operate “as an independent forum to provide accountability and recourse for communities affected by Bank-financed projects, to address harms resulting from policy noncompliance, and to help improve development effectiveness of the Bank’s operations” . Essentially, the IP was to determine whether the Bank complied with its own policies and procedures, especially its social and environmental impact assessments, and to ensure that its projects avoid harm to people and the natural environment.
To accomplish these tasks, the IP operates according to four key practices: independent fact-finding, problem-solving, checks and balances, and transparency and participation. To respond to complaints from communities affected by WBG projects, the Panel conducts independent investigations and compiles facts to establish whether the WBG followed operational policies and procedures. It plays a role in helping affected communities document problems with projects and then considers solutions to them. The IP provides a check and balance on the WBG Board and the actions of Bank managers. It lastly promotes transparency in Bank operations through the publication of reports and findings.
As of December 2016, the Inspection Panel had received 112 “cases” (or “Requests for Inspection”) as figure 1 illustrates. This number may not appear very high, but considering that a Request can only be filed by groups of affected people (indeed, it is not uncommon for a Request to be accompanied by thousands of signatures of individuals supporting it) and that those 112 cases have originated from 50 countries, the significance of this body of practice becomes clear. The most common complaints have involved supervision and environmental impact assessments [17–19]. Countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean also represent almost two-thirds (61%) of received requests.
EXAMINING THE BENEFITS OF THE WORLD BANK’S INSPECTION PANEL
What types of accountability has the IP promoted—and what benefits have accrued so far? Four of the IP’s benefits appear most significant.
Performance Outcomes at the World Bank
The IP has improved the performance of some WBG managers and the effectiveness of some programs in meeting their intended goals. In their investigation of the West Africa Gas Pipeline Project across Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana, for example, the IP documented that the WBG did not meet its own requirements of livelihood restoration and resettlement, and that there had been an embarrassing factor of 10 mistakes in undercompensating indigenous peoples for the value of their land. It also found that project documents overestimated that the amount of natural gas flaring the project could reduce—mistakes that were promptly corrected . In their investigation of the Chad–Cameroon oil pipeline, the IP spotlighted how the project did not incorporate a proper regional health plan into its assessments, failed to develop sound water and sanitation facilities around the project area, and lacked an appropriate assessment of how oil and gas projects impacted local communities—mistakes that were also corrected .
In other cases, complaints led to the sanctioning or dismissal of WBG staff. In their investigation of the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project in Kenya, the IP discovered that project managers had failed to meet the public consultation components of the WBG’s environmental impact assessment policy . In their investigation of the Albania Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Clean-Up Project, the IP discovered that managers had misrepresented facts concerning the demolition of homes in project appraisal documents and board meetings, findings that convinced the Board to “clean house” and terminate the employment of some senior managers .
Termination of Harmful Projects
Although infrequent, IP investigations have successfully suspended and cancelled socially and environmentally harmful WBG projects. The best example here is the first investigation ever conducted of the proposed Arun III Hydroelectric Project in Nepal in 1994. The IP’s investigation revealed that the Bank had failed to observe proper requirements for relocation and resettlement, and that the project had tenuous economic justification given the fragile state of Nepal’s economy. After receiving the IP’s report, the WBG terminated its involvement . Analogously, after the IP revealed that the Bank had “extensively violated” its policies concerning project design and the participation of vulnerable ethnic groups in consultations related to the China Western Poverty Reduction Project in Qinghai, the Board cancelled the Bank’s participation.
More than a decade later, in 2005, the IP’s report had a similar effect on the Mumbai Urban Transport Project in India, a scheme involving the relocation of more than 120,000 people. Their report documented “significant compliance failures in resettlement activities” ultimately convincing the Bank to suspend disbursements until employment options were expanded for local shopkeepers, and until databases for redressing grievances were improved . More recently, in 2015 an IP report revealed that the WBG failed to make sure that families displaced by a high-voltage Khimti–Dhalkebar Transmission Line project in Nepal were properly counted and compensated, given that they relied on outdated census data, leading to the suspension of the project . That same year, the threat of an IP investigation into a World Bank project in Uzbekistan concerning child and forced labor in the cotton industry convinced the government to comply with third-party monitoring from the International Labor Organization to ensure that global human rights standards were met .
Empowerment of Social Actors
The IP has empowered communities by giving stronger voices to affected persons, respecting their account of events, and redressing implementation problems. One earlier assessment noted 10 IP cases—Arun dam in Nepal, Planafloro deforestation in Brazil, Jamuna Bridge in Bangladesh, Yacyretá dam in Argentina, Jute Sector in Bangladesh, Itaparica dam in Brazil, Singrauli power line in India, Land Reform in Brazil, Western Poverty Reduction Project in China and Tibet, and Structural Adjustment in Argentina—where the IP had positive impacts on local communities. It concluded that “the Inspection Panel has given increased legitimacy to the claims of local people affected by the World Bank, and it serves as a forum through which their voices have been amplified within the institution” .
In Africa, the IP’s investigation of the Democratic Republic of Congo Forest-Related Operations project raised media attention to the plight of the Pygmy peoples and led to recognition of the non-economic value they placed on Congolese forests. That recognition convinced the federal government to place nationwide restrictions on logging . In India, IP investigations of coal mining in Singrauli resulted in increased compensation for affected people; in the Yacyretá Dam in Argentina, IP findings resulted in changes in design for smaller reservoirs that preserved the hunting and fishing grounds of some local communities . In Bangladesh, the IP-prompted controversy over the Jamuna Bridge precipitated in the national government recognizing, for the first time, the right of the Char people to compensation . The act of filing a complaint in the Romania Mine Closure and Social Mitigation Project was enough to motivate the government to cancel it, without the IP needing to conduct an investigation . IP actions have also resulted in legal protections for the Yorongar people in Chad, the virtual elimination of prostitution along the Chad–Cameroon oil pipeline, and greater protections against deforestation in Cambodia .
Human Rights Norms
The IP has motivated other agencies and institutions to create their own accountability mechanisms and enhanced the global protection of human rights. Bradlow  opines that “the creation of the Panel is an important legal development” since it is “the first forum in which private actors can hold an international organization directly accountable for the consequences of its failure.” This prompted the Inter-American Development Bank to create its own inspection panel in 1994 and the Asian Development Bank to create its own inspection mechanisms in 1995. The European Union established the International Right to Know Day on September 28, 2000, and created its own accountability mechanisms similar to the IP known as the European Ombudsman Office (EOO). Each year, the EOO receives a sobering 2,500 to 3,000 complaints addressed to institutions of the EU, of which 600 or so are investigated . Similarly, the European Investment Bank  established its “Complaints Mechanisms Principles” in 2010 to hold that Bank more accountable to its stakeholders; the EIB’s mechanism investigates roughly 40 cases every year.
REVEALING THE LIMITS TO THE WORLD BANK’S INSPECTION PANEL
What limitations and barriers must the IP confront? Though the World Bank’s IP has culminated in some meaningful benefits, it also faces significant challenges.
Limitations in Design and Scope
Though the IP can bring attention to problematic projects and has authority to make findings to the Bank’s Executive Board, it remains constrained by a limited mandate. Most significantly, the IP does not have the ability to provide any relief to complainants, even successful ones. The IP panel cannot make recommendations in a legal or binding sense, either, it can only make “findings” which may or may not include substantive and important observations. The IP cannot directly offer compensation, it cannot by itself issue an injunction against further work on a project, it does not oversee the generation of Action Plans, and it cannot rule that a project should be cancelled, or provide redress. It cannot even prevent governments or other institutions from retaliating against complainants. The IP merely advises the Executive Board, which then determines how to proceed. And then we have a veritable list of other weaknesses: it cannot focus on non-project loans, it cannot select its own members, it can only investigate the Bank rather than the borrower, and so on [12, 30, 31]. As Udall  explained decades ago, “the Panel is—by the nature of its powers—a limited creature. It is not an enforcement or judicial mechanism.”
Consequently, claimants can go through the arduous process of documenting and filing a complaint, only to have nothing done, even if they have demonstrated harm. In a claim concerning the Lesotho Highlands Water Project involving the construction of Africa’s largest dam (at that time), the project substantially increased water prices for local people and disproportionately impacted poor townships. Nonetheless, the IP decided not to pursue an investigation since “the claimants had not made a link between the conditions they complained of and specific bank policy violations” .
Similarly, in a complaint filed concerning the Rondonia Agricultural, Livestock, and Forestry (Planafloro) project in Brazil, a collection of 25 organizations representing indigenous peoples, small farmers, unions, and environmental groups exhaustively documented how the scheme compromised the integrity of local rainforests. The IP found that the Bank “failed to implement the project as planned” and had in their poor oversight facilitated illegal logging which was destroying up to 400,000 hectares of rainforest each year. The Executive Board, however, denied an investigation .
Then, when investigations do occur and identify harm, an inability for the IP to provide relief has proven to be a substantial barrier. In the case of the Yacyreta Hydroelectric Project in Argentina, although the IP found that the Bank “had violated numerous policies and procedures,” Bank management never fully followed through to ensure the complete implementation of Action Plans, though management did report back to the Board on at least two occasions . In the case of the Cartagena Water Supply, Sewerage, and Environmental Management Project in Colombia, the IP found “numerous problems” with how the project would discharge waste into the Caribbean Sea. Yet Bank management took three years to implement an action plan—by which point most of the damage to coastal villages had already been done . And in the case of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project in India, Bank management failed to meet their deadline for submitting an action plan and delayed for more than a year, meaning almost none of the targets recommended by the Executive Board were met .
Resistance and Interference with Bank Mission
Over the past few years, the WBG has undertaken a far more discretionary and cautious approach towards managing social and environmental impacts, with more emphasis placed on moving projects forward even when somewhat significant concerns are raised. This is because the WBG is now forced to compete with other multilateral donors and development banks, many of which have more relaxed standards, forcing the WBG to remain competitive. Bugalski  warns that “as the Bank strives to recast itself as an attractive lender to governments and public-private partnerships, there are emerging signs that it will sacrifice its system of accountability to project-affected people that it has built - albeit on wobbly foundations, and imperfectly - over the past three decades.” This new logic behind WBG operations suggests that social safeguards should help guide, but should not prescribe or limit the design and implement of projects.
Thus, WBG management may have concluded that without substantial institutional reform—including significant adaptation of social and environmental safeguard policies—the WBG will be marginalized and made irrelevant. Such a development, in turn, would significantly reduce the geopolitical and economic influence yielded by the Bank and its key sponsors (notably, the United States, Europe, and Japan). The adoption of a new Environmental and Social Framework in August 2016, which was preceded by an extensive consultative process involving internal and external stakeholders, signifies the World Bank’s response to these pressures. In short, institutional accountability has been reduced by shifting the responsibilities to other parties, whereas the responsibilities of the Bank has become more flexible and discretionary.
Other commentators have noted similar difficulties and tensions between accountability and efficacy approving projects with new “pilots” being launched under the IP [35, 36]. There is evidence that some managers remain focused on “dollars lent” rather than “poverty reduced,” and staff are still incentivized to move projects through the approval process faster both to raise revenue and to avoid offending borrowing governments [37–40].
Backlash Against Complainants
A final serious challenge faced by the IP is retaliation against those who file complaints, in some cases involving imprisonment and even death. In the case of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project in India, one of the complainants was imprisoned for months shortly after the IP sent its report to the board. In the case of the Chad–Cameroon pipeline, security forces from the government repeatedly threatened requestors in an attempt to persuade them to drop the complaint .
In the case of the coalmines in the Singrauli region of central India, retaliation was more severe. The WBG had loaned $150 million to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NPTC) in India to enable it to build the Singrauli Super Thermal Power Plant, but environmental and social assessments found that resettlement polices were failing to help affected communities . When a group of families filed a joint complaint to the IP in 1997, the NPTC responded forcefully and violently by utilizing security and police forces to detain and even physically beat the protestors and then destroy their homes . In summary, accessing the IP in this instance led literally to the eradication of an entire set of communities and villages.
CONCLUSION: LESSONS AND IMPLICATIONS
At least four conclusions emerge from this assessment of the WBG’s Inspection Panel. The first is that transparency and accountability has immense value in improving the internal governance of an institution and its ability to achieve social and environmental goals. The IP has seen WBG managers self-monitor their own behavior; it has seen peers, other donors, and governments monitor WBG actions to ensure it is meeting its standards; it has seen communities and civil society groups monitor WBG actions on the ground. It has reduced errors and at times corruption within Bank management, and made it harder to conduct shoddy analysis or rush projects to meet deadlines and lending targets. Transparency from the IP has facilitated the involvement of displaced and indigenous communities in WB policymaking through formal Action Plans, and functionally made the WB more accountable to the lives of those affected by projects.
The second, however, is that for transparency and accountability to occur, the institution promoting it must be independent. One needs strong, committed leaders on all sides. In the case of the IP, numerous presidents of the Bank and members of the Board had the foresight to create an independent accountability mechanism. Members of the IP had the fortitude to stand up to the Board and senior management when they resisted such accountability. Communities and their leaders exhibited the strength and dedication to file complaints, even in the face of potential retaliation and, at times, violence. Such communities benefitted from remarkably brave social activists . In other words, transparency and accountability can be a wonderful and even transformative mechanism, but only if matched with institutions and champions devoted to it succeeding. It is likely insufficient by itself to lead to lasting positive change.
Third, even when strong leaders are involved, there are limits to what IPs can accomplish. Notwithstanding the perseverance and commitment from dedicated stakeholders, the IP has only investigated about one-third of its requests. It had to struggle against both the inertia of WBG operating practices and, for almost six years after its creation and perhaps most recently post-2014, hostile managers and changing priorities. Severe retaliation and backlash against communities and individuals filing complaints has occurred with some facing imprisonment and others confronting death or the complete destruction of their homes or ways of life.
Fourth, however, is that the IP affirms the weight of due process and procedural justice. Procedural concerns such as the fairness and transparency of decisions, the adequacy of legal protections, and the legitimacy and inclusivity of institutions involved in decision-making can matter as much as substantive concerns such as resettlement, loss of livelihood, or degradation of the environment. Accountability, transparency, and due process intersects with recognition (who is recognized), participation (who gets to participate), and power (how is power distributed in decision-making forums). Although such elements of governance and justice may strike some as dry and unimportant, the IP reminds us that fair procedures matter because they tend to promote better—more equitable but also more efficient and effective—outcomes.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
Has the World Bank’s Inspection Panel meaningfully made the World Bank a better institution? Why or why not?
What sorts of tradeoffs has the Inspection Panel had to manage in practice?
Does the World Bank’s Inspection Panel offer a model for other institutions to follow?
If you could speak directly to those in charge of the World Bank, how would you suggest the Inspection Panel be improved further?
The author is extremely grateful to helpful comments from the editor, Dustin Mulvaney, as well as two anonymous peer reviewers. May Tan-Mullins and Andria Naudé Fourie also assisted with some of the data collection and analysis, helping the author further refine his knowledge of the World Bank and the Inspection Panel.
The author has declared that no competing interests exist.