Honors Thesis Spotlight: Transparency and Accountability in the World Bank: Internal Accountability Mechanisms and Their Failings.

One of the most important questions to ask of any organization is whether it fulfills its purpose: does it do what it was designed to do? This question is frequently difficult to answer. Internal reviews tend to be biased in favor of the group; after all, if a group is auditing itself, it wishes to present a viable solution to a problem. External reviews are not often undertaken, as there is not often any incentive or funding for outsiders to review agencies.

As an arm of the United Nations, the World Bank is no different. However, the World Bank is well-known for its commitment to open data. As its own website purports:

“The World Bank recognizes that transparency and accountability are essential to the development process and central to achieving the Bankís mission to alleviate poverty. The Bankís commitment to openness is also driven by a desire to foster public ownership, partnership and participation in development from a wide range of stakeholders. As a knowledge institution, the World Bank’s first step is to share its knowledge freely and openly ​​(The World Bank,​ 2019b).”

Oddly, this commitment does not extend to its own internal data. On the World Bank website, extensive data is available for world nations, but World Bank internal data is neither readily available nor particularly transparent. This thesis needed internal financial data for the World Bank, information which would have been readily available from any United States government agency not dealing with classified data. When contacted regarding this data, the World Bank replied negatively, explaining ìWe currently do not publish detailed expenditures in Open Data website and hence unable to provide you the requested details” and did not provide any avenue for appeal, as can be seen fully in the record of correspondence in Appendix 1 .

Obviously, this reply, or lack thereof, does not quite fit the standard presented as sharing knowledge ìfreely and openly.î In response to this lack of openness, a call was placed to the IDA branch of the World Bank, only to have the query referred to the Open Data website, with the instructions that ìif the data isnít there, we canít give it to you.î (World Bank IDA, personal communication, November 11, 2019). Again, no recourse was offered for further appeal, and no alternative avenue was suggested. Despite this lack of transparency, every attempt has been made to consider all available data when determining the efficiency of the World Bank, though no further data was obtainable beyond the basic financial statement pdfs. Therefore, while this thesis does consider the World Bank’s efficiency, it does so without much of the hoped-for information that would have enabled closer scrutiny. However, the information available clearly indicates a lack of efficiency and provides direction for further investigation.

This paper attempts to explore the internal efficiency of the World Bank International Development Association, or IDA. The goal of efficiency determination is accomplished, at least in part, by computing the simple overhead ratio, defined as the income of the IDA divided by its administrative costs, as well as the overhead expenditure ratio, defined as the expenditures of the IDA divided by its administrative costs. Both of these measures serve to demonstrate the relative amount of IDA funds spent on administrative costs, a ratio which is frequently used as a proxy measure for internal efficiency. However, the resulting figures are inconclusive, due to the lack of consistent data in publicly available IDA financial results. Multiple attempts to obtain more complete information were rebuffed by the World Bank, bringing to light significant transparency concerns. Until further information is made available, no complete determination can be made regarding efficiency.

Caleb Stephens graduated from Florida State University in 2020 with a degree in marketing and economics. Currently, Caleb is a student at the University of Virginia School of Law. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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