We want your feedback, as long as you speak English

Community groups in Yemen wrote to the local World Bank office asking if they could get an Arabic translation of the conditions the World Bank imposed on the Yemeni government for a $51 million loan. Sorry, the Bank rep told them, English is “the official language to be used in all the transactions and contracts between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the World Bank.” As Rebecca Harris of the independent Bank Information Center first told the story in an oped on the FP website, the understandably dissatisfied Yemeni activists have now taken their case to the Inspection Panel, the Bank’s dispute mechanism. Lack of interest in translation at the Bank is a symptom of a deeper problem. As our Aid Watch conference in February 2009 discussed, the most direct way to know whether aid is reaching the poor is to find out in some way: what do the poor themselves say about aid? This is going to be a lot more difficult if the poor have to speak in English!

The World Bank has made a lot of noise about consulting with “civil society.” The Bank brags on its web site: "The World Bank has learned...that the participation of [civil society] can enhance their operational performance..."

Further they claim that the Bank's engagement with civil society ("the Bank dialogues and consults with CSOs on issues, policies and programs, by listening to their perspectives and inviting suggestions") allows the Bank to:

Give voice to stakeholders – particularly poor and marginalized populations – and help ensure that their views are factored into policy and program decisions; Promote public sector transparency and accountability...; Promote public consensus and local ownership for reforms...; Bring innovative ideas and solutions, as well as participatory approaches to solve local problems; Strengthen and leverage development programs by providing local knowledge, targeting assistance, and generating social capital at the community level.

Although the Yemeni community groups could not get critical Bank documents in Arabic, they would presumably be glad to know that the above statements about how the Bank will consult them ARE available in Arabic.

This suggests a new objective test of how serious the Bank really is about consulting local populations. How many critical Bank documents are available in the local language? How many “locally owned” Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers are actually prepared in the local language? How many translators does the Bank employ in the field so they can listen to local people? Or best of all but probably a hopeless cause, how many Bank staff working on a project themselves speak the local language? (We may cut them a little slack if the local language is Ucayali-Yurúa Ashéninka, spoken by only seven thousand Peruvians.) Let’s call it “the Rebecca Harris language test” in honor of her raising the issue.