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Assessing the World Bank.

The centerpiece of the World Bank's environmental review process is having only "limited impact" on actual Bank practice, according to a leaked internal World Bank report. Bank staff often prepare environmental assessments too late and fail to properly consider alternatives to environmentally damaging proposed projects, the report concludes.

The report, "Effectiveness of Environmental Assessments and National Environmental Action Plans: A Process Study," prepared by the Bank's Operations Evaluation Department, evaluates the effectiveness of the Bank's environmental assessment (EA) policy in eight countries. Bank policy calls for conducting environmental assessments of all projects that are deemed likely to have a significant impact on the environment. The EAs are supposed to evaluate the potential effect of a hydroelectric dam, road or other project on the environment, and to consider ways to minimize the environmental effect of projects.

But Bank staff regularly fail to consider alternatives, according to the report. "Analysis of project alternatives, when done at all, is weak," the report says, finding that EAs even for the most potentially environmentally serious projects "have failed to give serious consideration to alternative designs and technologies, ... and those that do, often explore weak, superficial or easily dismissed options." The problem is compounded by the fact that EAs are often not completed until after project design is finalized, according to the report, "thus precluding meaningful consideration of alternatives."

Bank project implementation staff often do not understand EAs, according to the report, which says the EAs are often not even available in local project offices, the level at which implementation takes place. Not surprisingly, the report concludes that "implementation on the ground has not adequately integrated EA recommendations and mitigation plans."

Olas Kjorven, environmental assessment specialist with the Bank's Environmental Department, agrees that the Bank's EAs have suffered from several shortcomings but says "that does not mean previous EAs have been a failure." He says that EAs at the Bank have fulfilled their terms of reference, improved over time and "had a major effect on the way we do business."

The challenge for the Bank now, says Kjorven, is to move the EA process "upstream," so that assessments are done before projects are decided on, so that EAs can genuinely consider alternatives. Recommendations by the Environmental Department to move EAs upstream and to improve the public consultation process have been endorsed and accepted by senior management at the Bank, he says.

The leak of the Bank report comes as the World Bank is streamlining its more than 500 policies into 60 or 70 policies. While World Bank President James Wolfensohn says the effort is intended to improve efficiency and enable the Bank to operate "more like a business," many environment groups believe the Bank is downgrading the importance it places on environmental issues.

Some environmentalists have charged that the Bank is seeking to avoid scrutiny from the Bank's independent Inspection Panel, an autonomous body created to review the Bank's compliance with its own policies and procedures. If the Bank eliminates its environmental and social policies or couches them in more general terms, the Inspection Panel would be less able to reach a finding that the Bank was failing to comply with its own standards.

"The inspection panel will quickly become toothless without any policies to which to hold the Bank accountable," says Dana Clark, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Environmental Law.

Revisions in Bank policy for energy and pesticide management lend strong support to these fears. The energy policy, once contained in two detailed, mandatory papers approved by the Bank's board of directors, has been translated into a one-page "good practice" sheet, written to provide staff with advice and good practice examples, but not to impose mandatory rules. There are no operational policies or Bank procedures being formulated to require staff to prioritize and ensure energy-efficient practices in Bank-sponsored projects.

David Theis, of the Bank's external affairs office, explains that the good-practice papers are designed to complement, not replace, existing policy. But Richard Stern, chief of the Bank's energy division, acknowledges that the Bank specifically rejected formulating the new policies as a binding operational policy, choosing instead to adopt them as a non-binding set of good practices. While the old, binding energy policies do appear to remain in place, they are confusing and of limited value.

Similarly, the conversion of the pesticide management policy has altered the content and intent of the original policy. Pesticide Action Network's Marcia Ischii-Eiteman says that the new policy completely strips the language designed to ensure that the Bank takes an ecologically sound approach in pesticide management.

The former policy's concrete steps to encourage integrated pest management based on ecologically sound approaches have been abandoned. The new policy backs away from the Bank's former commitment to reduce, whenever possible, reliance on chemical pesticides. The policy also fails to mention the importance of farmer leadership and participation in agricultural practices, an essential component of successful integrated pest management policies.

The EA review and the streamlining process are deeply worrisome to environmental activists, who have long worked to reform the Bank's environmental policies and practices. They conclude that after a decade of battling the Bank over environmental controversies, concern for the environment remains marginal at the world's leading development institution.

Andrea Durbin is director of international projects with Friends of the Earth
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Title Annotation:the World Bank's environmental review process
Author:Durbin, Andrea
Publication:Multinational Monitor
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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