Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

ADB initiates broad policy changes

 •  State measures impact of Asia Development Bank's meeting
 •  Advertiser special: ADB in Hawai'i — global issues, local impact

By Glenn Scott
Advertiser Staff Writer

Last year at the Asian Development Bank meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Marietta Paragas didn't hold back her criticism of bank operations in her native Philippines.

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill addresses the delegates at the 34th annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

As chief executive officer of the nonprofit Shontoug Foundation, which works with indigenous women and children in her country, Paragas told bank officials it was time they started including the rural people in planning for projects that supposedly were aimed at improving living conditions for them.

This year in Honolulu, Paragas sat stunned during a similar seminar as bank President Tadao Chino opened the session by explaining how the bank has adopted new practices to include local people at three steps in the process: consultation, participation and collaboration.

"That is exactly what I brought out in Chiang Mai," Paragas said last week. "I felt like I could hardly believe he mentioned those three concerns."

Though Paragas says she is not yet a true believer in the bank's new promise, having seen too many cases when bank projects were thrust on communities with almost no input, she now considers bank leaders sincere when they say they intend their programs to be more open and effective.

Paragas was hardly alone in reaching that conclusion. Many other representatives of nonprofit groups outside of governments — known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs — said last week that they were impressed by the same changes as the bank, still seen by many as monolithic and unresponsive, opened its decision-making processes to more comment from the outside.

Attendance figures suggested as much. A decade ago, no more than a handful of nonprofits were invited inside annual meetings. Last week, leaders of 122 nongovernmental organizations shared the corridors of the Hawai'i Convention Center with ADB executives, finance ministers, commercial bankers and other traditional insiders.

That was easily the most nonprofit representation at an annual meeting. And those reps tended to be among the busiest, too, as they met virtually every day with new NGO director Robert Dobias to brainstorm procedures for an NGO network that bank officials hope to introduce later this year.

"I see a shift, a very positive shift, particularly for NGOs," said Kabita Bhattarai, director for CECI Nepal, a training and development agency based in Kathmandu.

Reasons for including such group input surpasses questions of access. People like Bhattarai, Paragas and Carol Fox of the Honolulu office of the Nature Conservancy maintain that feedback from their groups is critical to bank goals since the nonprofit workers tend to be the local experts in how social systems work.

ADB President Tadao Chino pleased critics during last week's sessions by explaining new practices that involve local communities in project decisions.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"The bank still has a long way to go, but it's a huge organization," said Fox, who works with the bank on three Asian projects. "It's like a huge ship plowing through the ocean. It still takes time to turn the ship, to build understanding."

ADB executives say that their aim to improve grassroots involvement fits with the bank's new policy directions and makes good sense by addressing the conflicting tugs of the international development formula. By adequately involving local recipients, they note, they not only build in an important sense of ownership in a project but also guarantee themselves a higher probability of success.

Thus, they can assure developing countries that bank-financed projects serve real purposes in reducing poverty, the bank's primary goal. Meanwhile, the bank can show richer donor countries they are using resources wisely to produce maximum results.

Joseph Eichenberger, a bank vice president and an American, said he thinks Chino's move in 1999 to frame all activities according to how they serve to reduce poverty has enabled bank employees to have a clearer way to measure activities. That's especially true, he said, as Asian and Pacific countries inevitably see their economic options reduced as growth slows worldwide this year.

He noted that countries borrowing money from the bank are likely to have limited room for new debt, and so they need assurances that ADB-financed projects will be in line with efforts to build broad social wealth.

Even given the bank's new directions, though, Eichenberger says its mission is still so complex, and each country's circumstances so unique, to defy fail-safe methods for lifting standards of living.

"If we've learned anything," he said, "it's that we're in probably the most difficult business in the world. Every day that goes by should teach us how to do a little better in this business. It's an evolving thing."