International Organizations and Environmental Policy

By Robert V. Bartlett; Priya A. Kurian et al. | Go to book overview

6 Environmental Learning at the World Bank

Philippe G. Le Prestre

How and what organizations learn or fail to learn are central to the promotion of environmentally sensitive international policies. In the 1980s, nongovernmental organizations ( NGOs) and a few governments chastised international financial institutions for their inability to integrate environmental values into the definition and implementation of their tasks. They attacked the World Bank for first adopting weak environmental guidelines and then for ignoring them, and then they accused it of supporting ecological disasters. The organization appeared unwilling or unable to correct its errors. Convinced that it could never learn, some called for its downsizing or even for its elimination (e.g., Korten, 1991; McCully, 1992).

Yet the World Bank has also demonstrated leadership and was encouraged to exert it. The 1989 G-7 Summit exhorted it to integrate the environment into its development activities and to promote sustainable development. Industrialized countries have asked the World Bank to undertake a major role in the formation of a policy consensus and in the management of environmental issues in the developing world. Although NGOs condemned it at the 1992 Rio Summit, governments reaffirmed its central role through their support for the Global Environment Facility ( GEF) and additional financial resources. After reviewing the performance of major international organizations, Ernst Haas ( 1990) has argued that the World Bank was perhaps the only organization that had been able to change its development policy, ideology, and behavior in the face of evolving systemic conditions--that is, to demonstrate learning.

This chapter explores efforts made by the World Bank to correct past errors and implement a new environmental policy adopted in 1987. The organization itself talks constantly about lessons from experience and uses them to justify its positions. Has the World Bank shown sufficient capacity to learn in order to play the role now assigned to it? What type of learning has taken place, and with what impact on organizational performance? What explains either the

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