By Raghav Narsalay

The 34th Annual Governors Meeting of the Asian Development Bank held in Honolulu,
Hawaii on May 9-11, 2001 was nothing short of historic. At this meeting the
highest-ranking official of the ADB, President Tadao Chino, was forced to come
out and listen to the charter of demands of civil society. For the first time
ever, the ADB President went out and met with the NGOs at a time, occasion and
place that was decided by the civil society and not by him. Thus came about
“the Chino Gesture”.

A number of "structured" interactions between NGOs and the ADB took
place after “the Chino Gesture” but whether these are actually to civil society’s
advantage is an interesting question.

It is time to take stock of recent NGO-ADB interaction history and the political
context associated with “the Chino Gesture”.


The seeds of “the Chino Gesture” were sown last year during the 33rd Annual
Meeting of the ADB in Chiang Mai. At this meeting Chino “snubbed” the invitation
from the People’s Forum to dialogue with civil society, mentioning that the
invitation came too late and that he was “too busy” to accommodate the request.
This kind of a Presidential response invoked a strong reaction from NGOs, prompting
Thai NGOs and the entire People’s Forum to boycott any form of dialogue inside
ADB meeting premises. On top of the ADB was heralded by a huge rally of groups
from all over Thailand and foreign participants from the People’s Forum.

The ‘different’ form of protest in 2000 apparently made an impression on the
ADB. Not only did it result in some staff reshuffle within the NGO Centre at
the ADB, but dictated a change in the ADB approach towards NGOs for the Honolulu
meeting as well. One, the ADB NGO Centre distributed an agenda of proposed “structured”
institutional interactions between the ADB staff (operations, programme &
management) and activists well in advance. Two, the ADB included in its ‘Guide
to NGO Consultations’ a detailed list of events that the NGOs organized independently.

All this gave indications that if NGOs just pressed hard enough, the following
might be possible. Either President Chino would come out and meet with civil
society and hearing their petition "outside" of the Convention Center;
or the ADB staff would have to respond to serious institutional, project- and
programme-related questions during the so-called “structured” ADB interactions
with NGOs.


NGOs decided to yet again stay away from the ‘official’ meeting with Chino.
So, instead of the ADB’s staunchest critics, Chino met with a more comfortable
audience composed mainly by the Foundations, existing and aspiring consultants
to the ADB, students from University of Hawaii and of course the ADB staff.
There were very few of the critical NGOs there.

It was not surprising then that the Chino and his staff did not face a barrage
of stinging political questions with respect to the power structure of the ADB;
the level of internal non-transparency in decision making; the lack of coordination
between staff at programme, country and project level; and the steps being initiated
by the inspection and audit department of the ADB to repair the glaring errors
and corruption that had taken place in its projects et al. The discussions were
highly apolitical. Worse, they did not even look towards seeking any commitments
from Chino and his staff. The interaction focused on: the inclusion of certain
new issues in future RETAs (regional technical assistance); improvement of procurement
procedures which would help consultants as well as consultant-NGOs; existence
of and how the ADB should address fake NGOs; and the relationship between energy
issues and poverty. The meeting ended with the regulation assurances about trying
to work closer with civil society.

The meeting turned out to be so benign so as to amuse university students,
commenting “everything sounded so ‘goody-goody’”. They stressed that no questions
were raised at the meeting that would put ADB officials in the dock. “Everything
seemed to be so synchronized”, they said. Indeed quite amusing! So unexciting
was the meeting that not even the ADB bothered to produce a single press release
on it.


Most of the “structured” interactions only began after President Chino actually
came down to meet with NGOs on the road before the Hawaii Convention Centre
at noon of May 9. It must be also noted that President Chino did enjoy support
of some Executive Directors and some staff who convinced him about the importance
of going down and meeting NGOs. Which also reveals that there were some senior
staff and Executive Directors with a very different opinion on this issue and
they had to make up for the ‘Chino Gesture’ during future interactions of the
ADB with NGOs.

Also important to note were the remarks made by the US-Treasury Secretary on
May 9, while addressing Governors from various countries. These comments essentially
conveyed to the Governors/Executive Directors/ADB officials that the US, the
largest donor to the ADB, in future, would be more concerned about “efficiency”
of ADB operations, which he felt would automatically help its poverty reduction
programmes via private sector participation. He further mentioned that ADB officials
at all levels should be awarded more “autonomy” in order to achieve “efficiency”
in operations. There was no mention about the missing ‘equity’ or ‘justice’
dimensions of ADB programmes.

All the more interesting that President Chino had a quick meeting with the
US Treasury Secretary (unscheduled, according to one insider) before coming
down to meet the NGOs.

This means that, in spite of the President coming down to meet NGOs, the ADB
staff was in a position to take political advantage on the basis of statements
made by their largest institutional donor and can afford to remain non-committal
on ‘equity’ and ‘justice’ dimensions. If they succeeded in doing so, then it
was going to be very easy for them to impress upon the people that President
Chino’s gesture was just a token one, and his coming down was nothing more than
an attempt to avoid any major fiasco at Honolulu.

It is in this context that the outcomes of the 11 official meetings between
ADB officials and the NGOs need to be looked into.


Some of the key outcomes are:

– The ADB Executive Directors admitted that there is no singular office or
identified function that deals with general accountability issues. In short,
it is difficult if not impossible to identify a person or an office responsible
for anything. Only when issues are brought before the Governing Board or various
committees like the Inspection Committee will it be possible for them to look
into the issue more seriously. This is a very serious observation, especially
in the context of an organisation that is more than 30 years old. It speaks
volumes about how the Board and other staff of ADB has been keeping their donors,
i.e. taxpayers from donor countries and supposed beneficiaries from several
developing countries, in the dark vis-a-vis accountability issues. Unless of
course this is a tack used by some overzealous ADB staff, i.e. using the veil
of ignorance to dodge responsibility, at least till the next AGM.

– Bank staff were best when responding to the various 'efficiency' dimensions
of their programmes/projects, but succeeded only in evading questions on issues
pertaining to 'equity' and 'justice'.

– ADB authorities more or less conceded that their loan agreements and policies
do not contain a language that protects the 'rights' of the supposed beneficiaries.
In short, those affected by projects cannot use these agreements and policies
to defend their rights.

– A familiar ADB refrain goes, "NGOs need to question their governments
and not the ADB, as it is their governments that implement projects and programmes.
The ADB just gives loans when governments ask for them." This has been
an oft-repeated ploy by the ADB to dodge responsibility for its decisions and
operations. But what the ADB cannot deny is that repeating this mantra tells
on its failure to seriously integrate people participation and involvement in
projects and decision-making, be it on internal Bank structures or those of
its clients.

– There is appreciation, but not acceptance, of the need to make Bank staff
including the Board more accountable to peoples and not just governments. And
this appreciation-and-not-acceptance stance is reflected on how up to this day,
there are no clear accountability structures within the Bank and its field offices.


Inspection policy:

A glaring error in this policy is that it excludes the private entities (like
private companies, consultancies, etc.) from any inspection exercise. Interestingly,
ADB Executive Directors mentioned that they were 'thinking' of amending this
policy to include the private sector but did not mention any specific date.

Furthermore, the current policy does not have any language that facilitates
inspection of policy loans.

Neither does the policy speak about authorizing the Board with the right to
appoint an Inspection Committee to conduct suo motu investigation. Interestingly,
John Lockhart – chairman of the present Inspection Committee– has been a judge
and prior to that spent nearly twenty years adjudicating public interest cases
before he joined the ADB. He promised to try his best to use the current policy
framework to the best of his ability to award justice to peoples, citing "one
knows how elastic the English language is." One could test his promise,
if the Governing Board decides to instruct the Inspection Committee to investigate
into the Samut Prakarn Case.

Project Evaluation/Audit:

Serious errors were pointed out in the area of conducting participatory evaluation
of projects. In fact when the group was discussing the Lunugamvehera Dam built
under the Kirindi Oya project financed by the ADB, the Sri Lankan NGO participating
in the discussion revealed that the pre-final Project Performance Audit Report
was never discussed with the so-called beneficiaries of the project before it
was finalized.

The question as to who audits the performance of contractors appointed by the
ADB went unanswered.

Apparently adding to the lack of transparency even inside the ADB bureaucracy
is the lack of coordination and rapport between and among ADB departments. At
least, the ADB seems to be true to its rabid praise of competition!

Indigenous Peoples' Policy:

Although Bank staff would say that the ADB understands that the Policy on Indigenous
Peoples was unclear as to how the rights of indigenous people and communities
will be protected vis-?-vis existing class battle in the client country, it
remains curious how the exactly how the ADB “understands”.

An example cited was the case of the South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ). Notwithstanding
the sensitive political climate in the areas to be covered by the SAGQ, Bank
staff who are responsible for the SAGQ have not been part of the SAGQ inception.
Worse, the ADB has yet to initiate a discussion with vulnerable groups like
the indigenous communities in North East India in the context of the SAGQ.

The ADB has not taken any position on the patenting indigenous knowledge, choosing
instead to hide behind the statement that they welcome NGO inputs on this.

Privatization Policy:

The ADB has so far failed to provide a satisfactory political and social reasoning
to its beneficiaries with respect to policy on privatisation that is skewed
in the favour of the private sector participants.

The policy does not mention how it would protect the interest of the small
and marginal farmers given that ADB is making a foray in privatisation of agriculture.

The policy does not delve into class issues that could result from the privatization
of natural resources.

It is indeed unfortunate that the ADB implements the privatization policy without
regard for national and local realities.

Policy on Corruption:

Curiously, the ADB so far fails to link its disclosure policy to its policy
relating to corruption.

The ADB offers but a vague definition of ‘corruption’ and which, as is becoming
apparent in the Samut Prakarn case, needs to be updated to be relevant at all.

What examples like Samut Prakarn were also showing was that ADB officials had
been pretty irresponsible while administering the disclosure and the policy
on corruption.


During the various NGO meetings with the Bank, ADB staff including the EDs
accepted several anomalies in the existing Bank structure and processes. But
they failed, or took very good care not to sound 'committal'. The most they
could give was an assurance that they will try their best to rectify the anomalies
using the existing policies, the very same policies and processes that have
been understood as flawed. Tokenism indeed!

As far as the ADB is concerned, they managed to still have substantial interactions
with NGOs, both in and out of the Convention Center. Hence, they have not totally
lost face, even if there was a tremendous snub of the Chino-NGO meeting just
before the May 9 march. But as far as civil society is concerned, “the Chino
Gesture” only opened up a bit more space to a daunting task ahead.

Civil society has the advantage of knowing the system better and is in a better
position to relate 'who-is-who' in the large and amorphous system that is the
ADB. Civil society representatives have also shown a lot of gumption and preparation
that managed to catch ADB officials off guard many times during the various
ADB-NGO interactions in Honolulu. For instance, not only did the Samut Prakarn
protesters know of the issue, they even had documents in the original to prove
their claims, something not even smooth EDs were prepared to hear.

Knowing the predilection of institutions like the ADB, their next target is
the preparations for the 35th AGM in Shanghai, yet again a new territory for
civil society to muster. But with active campaigns, most notably Samut Prakarn
and Theun Hinboun, taken by civil society, the ADB can be sure that cosmetic
preparations for their annual event will become even harder. Civil society,
after all, does not share an affinity for tokenism as the ADB has.

*Raghav Narsalay is a Research Associate at the Focus India Programme. [email protected]