The Bank of Babel
Why the World Bank should stop (only) speaking English By Rebecca Harris In January 2008, community groups in Yemen wrote to their local World Bank office, asking for an Arabic translation of the conditions placed on a $51 million grant to their country’s government. This was a reasonable request, they thought, since past World ...
Why the World Bank should stop (only) speaking English
By Rebecca Harris
In January 2008, community groups in Yemen wrote to their local World Bank office, asking for an Arabic translation of the conditions placed on a $51 million grant to their country’s government. This was a reasonable request, they thought, since past World Bank loans had prioritized macroeconomic stability over social services, such as healthcare and education. The civil society groups wanted to be sure that this time would be different.
The groups were surprised by the World Bank’s reply: The country manager thanked them for their “high level of awareness” of the ongoing development process and explained that “like all other project documents — [the loan conditions are] available only in English, since this 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.” He apologized for not being able to provide a translation and hoped that the civil society groups could translate themselves — a rather daunting task in a country where literacy is just 57 percent, few read English, and the cost of translation (at about $1,800 or $2,000 for a single document) would eclipse the $930 per capita GDP of the average Yemeni.
Ten days later, on January 30, 25 local organizations sent a follow-up letter, asking the Bank’s office to revisit its translation policy. They have yet to receive a response.
By April 2009, the civil society organizations were fed up, and they submitted their complaint to the World Bank’s independent grievance mechanism, the Inspection Panel. According to one of the groups filing the complaint, the Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights (YOHR), the Bank’s rejection of repeated translation requests was indicative of a more chronic problem. In short, the Bank’s linguistically narrow policy was keeping civil society out and the elite in. The executive director of YOHR claimed this as one of the main reasons that past World Bank projects had seen poor results.
Today, the question before the Inspection Panel is one far broader than just a few translations. What is at stake is the Bank’s very ability to succeed, and its credibility among those it serves.
Let’s put all this in context. Civil society organizations have had a tenuous relationship with the World Bank since the 1980s and 1990s, when “structural adjustment” loans were all the rage. These interventions were intended to get a country’s finances in order through spending cuts and debt repayment. But though the bottom line may have improved, the side effects were devastating for social services. Budget ceilings were often placed on the hiring of teachers and healthcare workers, for example. Decades later, the loans are seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when macroeconomic policy is dictated without input from the people the policy is supposedly serving.
Although the loan structures have changed, the World Bank’s English bias begs the question of what else really has. The Yemen case is just one example of the several barriers blocking public access to information at the Bank. Most supposedly public documents and studies held by the bank are essentially inaccessible — unless someone makes the effort to pry them out. Deliberative documents that detail how loans and grants were negotiated are also highly restricted. And draft documents are not released until the Bank’s board approves them, severely undermining the ability of interested parties to weigh in on the process. The only papers that merit this sort of burying — whether linguistic, bureaucratic, or intentional — are those whose release would cause demonstrable harm.
Issues of transparency aside, there are other reasons to question why the world’s leading development institution would expect to do business solely in English in a country (like Yemen) where Arabic is the national language. From the outset, that decision excludes the majority of the host country’s population from every step of the process.
This argument holds not just in Yemen but across the approximately 140 eligible borrowing countries where the World Bank is in the business of trying to help the poor (with whom it, ironically, often cannot communicate). It is in the Bank’s interest to cut down its language barrier and talk to the real people. Civil society understands the local realities that will propel a project either to success or failure far better than any expatriate could. Besides, it seems only right that those populations targeted by the World Bank should have a say in what and how projects are run. Without this kind of participation, the World Bank’s street credibility suffers and its projects flail for lack of public support.
Hopefully the World Bank understands this. One positive sign is its ongoing review of its information disclosure policy, set to be finished this fall. The right to participate must not be reserved for only those who speak English or can navigate the Bank’s organizational behemoth. That kind of elite-dictated development dangerously approaches colonialism, rather than progress.
Rebecca Harris is information services coordinator at the Bank Information Center (www.bicusa.org).
Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
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