Why the general public often does not properly understand multilateral affairs

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by Hans Dembowski

Distorted rhetoric at ADB conference

I keep discussing my recent experience at the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) with colleagues, so I guess it makes sense to share it on the blog as well. As a journalist I have been observing international affairs for decades, and it worries me that this job is getting ever more difficult.

As all journalists learn early on, one should always hear both sides to understand what is going on. If you only report what the government says, for example, you miss the opposition’s arguments. To inform the public accurately, it is necessary to assess both views and convey their most important aspects.

This approach only works out well in a context where there are two sides and both argue their case intelligibly. Covering the ADB conference, I focused on two issues:

  • social and environmental standards on the one hand and
  • the emergence of new development banks, especially the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) on the other.

The two issues are related, of course, since the strongest member of the AIIB is China, whereas the ADB is dominated by established donors. At the same time, China is a member of the ADB, and various European donor governments have joined the AIIB.

In regard to social and environmental standards, ADB President Takehiko Nakao proudly stated in Frankfurt that ADB rules would guide the first joint financing project by ADB and AIIB. AIIB President Jin Liqun did not say much on the matter in public. Non-governmental activists, however, reiterated that the ADB was massively violating human rights in the context of the implementation of various projects and warned that everything would get worse once the AIIB would become a major player. There will be incentives, they argue, to neglect social and environmental issues in order to disburse money faster.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the world views of NGOs and international financial institutions (IFIs) clashed. The NGOs demanded that IFIs pay more attention to social and environmental issues, and IFI staff tended to dismiss NGOs as naïve do-gooders. Today, anyone who only pays attention to the slogans will believe that nothing much has changed even though many divides have been bridged to a considerable extent. 

To understand that things are now much more nuanced, one has to attend expert panels on these matters. In Frankfurt, NGO activists happily admitted that the ADB’s safeguard system is among the world’s best, and they say that of the ADB’s compliance system as well. Bank officials who are professionally engaged in these issues appreciate the praise, but readily admit that not all is well. Even though the ADB is a world leader, its systems do not have enough bite to prevent serious environmental and social problems in the context of project implementation.

The greatest challenge is that the national governments of the countries where projects are implemented often show little regard for social and environmental issues. Moreover, many of them do not obey their own laws. The ADB has no jurisdiction over these governments. The governments concerned, however, have some influence on the ADB because they represent member countries. 

The real issue is thus how to get Asian governments to respect not only ADB rules, but their own laws as well. The ADB leadership has some influence, but must take into consideration that the dispute is raging among its members. The NGOs are an important pressure group, but they apparently feel more comfortable attacking a multilateral institution than the governments of comparatively poor countries that were victimised by colonialism.

Both sides are shying away from addressing the underlying issue, which is that the rule of law remains weak in Asian countries. If most journalists knew that ADB staff and NGOs basically share this view, they would probably convey the information to the general public. Most journalists, however, do not have much time. Most only attend a few press conferences in the context of such an event and do not have time for specialist workshops. 

Unless ADB and NGOs address the issues that matter in a straightforward way, however, most journalists will not get a clear idea, so the general public cannot be informed well.

That would not matter if the ADB and AIIB were irrelevant institutions. They are very important though. International financial institutions serve to find and implement global solutions for global problems. As there are no national solutions to global problems, multilateral action is indispensable. If the public in nation states, however, does not get a chance to understand what the global problems are and what multilateral attempts are being made to solve them, successful action becomes less likely.

The truth is that NGOs and ADB staff do not differ much in their assessments of non-compliance with social and environmental standards. Both sides could do a better job of helping journalists – and indirectly the general public – understand things.

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