World Bank blunder in Kenya

Today’s Financial Times describes how the World Bank’s country director in Kenya has put his political chips on Kibaki, the leader who declared a disputed victory in elections a couple of weeks ago. Since FT is subscription only, I print the full article here, and see my thoughts below.

World Bank memo leak sparks bias accusation

A confidential memo from the World Bank’s Kenya office that supports President Mwai Kibaki’s claim of victory in the country’s disputed elections plunged the Washington-based lender into controversy yesterday.

The leaked January 1 briefing note, originating from Colin Bruce, the World Bank’s representative in Nairobi, lays out the case for accepting Mr Kibaki’s victory on the basis of “oral briefings and documents from senior [UN Development Programme] officials” who “monitored the overall electoral process”.

The memo claims that “the considered view of the UN is that the Electoral Commission of Kenya announcement of a Kibaki win is correct”.

However, Michele Montas, a spokeswoman for the UN secretary-general, denied that the organisation had adopted that position. UNDP officials said they had neither monitored the elections nor provided any assessment suggesting a Kibaki victory.

Given the widespread irregularities reported in last month’s elections, the leaked briefing note is likely to trigger accusations that the institution, which lends heavily to Kenya, has lost its political objectivity.

European Union election observers, whom Mr Bruce criticised, yesterday stood by their conclusion the election was impossible to call.

Mr Bruce’s memo has created discomfort among some senior World Bank staff who fear the bank’s analysis of the Kenyan crisis has been influenced by too close a relationship with Mr Kibaki. Mr Bruce lives in a house owned by the Kibaki family. The bank said Mr Bruce’s tenancy was inherited from its previous country representative and had been chosen on security grounds.

The World Bank has been criticised for maintaining its programme in Kenya in spite of evidence of high-level corruption in Mr Kibaki’s government. The bank says its projects are vital for the country’s poor.

Mr Bruce told the Financial Times the bank had no position on the result of the elections and he “was simply reporting the information that was available to me to headquarters”. World Bank officials in Washington backed him and released a series of communications from him, stating these showed his balanced approach to the elections. None of the other notes regarding the Kenyan crisis revisits the question of whether Mr Kibaki won the election.

Marwan Muasher, head of external relations at the bank, said: “The bank does not take political positions. Neither Colin Bruce nor the bank has a position on Kibaki or [opposition leader Raila] Odinga.”

First, FT usually does some of the best international reporting in the world, and their work in Kenya so far has been better than all the rest to be sure. This is some scoop. Keep watching their Kenya page.

The Bank, on the other hand, has been caught with it’s pants down.

I work with the Bank in East Africa, mostly helping them and the government to improve and evaluate their anti-poverty programs. Of all of the development agencies (save maybe DFID) they strike me as probably the most talented, experienced, and well-managed multi-lateral. Granted, the world’s tallest midget is still a midget. But in my experience they are better than the many of the rest. Most importantly to me, they work very closely with governments rather than working around them, and add to rather than subtract from the effectiveness of the state.

But this is a real mess.

The Bank is not supposed to be a political organization. It says so in their charter, and they often stick to it, even behind the scenes.

The trouble is, that when an election is disputed or a coup happens or a government look corrupt, the Bank has to decide whether or not to lend money to them. Though politically they don’t say yeah or nay, there is de facto recognition in deciding to do business with them.

This is a hard choice. Shun the leader, and the people who pay most are the poor and the fragile business sector that holds the most hope for development in the country. Road contracts will be suspended. Youth grants will end. Slum rehabilitation will halt.

And Bank staff care a lot about the poverty and infrastructure programs. A lot.

The added problem here is that the Bank country director in Kenya lives at the President’s house. The President rents out his private residence, and it’s been occupied by the Bank for years. Questionable decision? Yes. Evidence of corruption or influence? Hard to believe.

In fact, my favorite story is that when the previous Director, a talented Senegalese man and a mean jazz musician, threw a going away party in his house, the First Lady came over in a crazed state and tried to shut it down with her security forces for making too much noise.

Sound like a cozy relationship to you? Me neither.

Plus the Bank’s political image has suffered a lot in recent years, not least because of the Wolfowitz ordeal .

So why did the Country Director write this memo? Well, he and his staff probably want to see the country stabilize sooner rather than later and are probably betting that Kibaki is here to stay. So they’re getting ready for that so that programs and lending don’t suffer because the Bank didn’t anticipate the outcome of the instability.

Bad decision, I say, and questionable ethically. There is still great hope of an alternative resolution, and the evidence on election fraud still looks pretty damning of Kibaki.

The worst idea he had was to put this to paper. There are a lot of former Country Directors and senior bank staff hanging around where I work, and most think that this might spell the end of one Director’s career. But other Directors have weathered worse. And there is the chance that this was an innocent but merely ill-advised memo.

Also, like most Country Directors, he probably never wrote it himself. Signed and read, of course, but perhaps not closely enough.

I sincerely hope that a deal between Kibaki and the opposition is not threatened by this blunder.

4 thoughts on “World Bank blunder in Kenya

  1. Very nice blog, Chris, and I do agree with you that Bank staff working on East Africa are both very competent and very dedicated. A couple of thoughts come to mind:

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the elections in Kenya, whether they be part of the aid community or otherwise. But putting them on paper in an official capacity is probably unwise (as you point out).

    The Bank’s press summaries often leave much to be desired. While the Wolfowitz saga was going on, it was often the last item on the Bank’s daily summaries, despite the fact it was in the headlines in many of the world’s newspapers and other media. It does not make sense for Bank staff to influence or modify what the press are reporting–the staff in External Relations should simply report what the media say, not a country director’s (or any other staff’s) opinion or reinterpretation.

    In the end, Bank staff need to be able to discuss matters freely, it is futile to say that the Bank has to stay out of political discussions. Hopefully this incident will not curtail that freedom even further.

  2. It’s hard to believe that Mr. Bruce would sign a memo he has not read, esp. with the election being the front page news over the last two weeks.

  3. My updated info:

    – The opinions Bruce was expressing in the memos/e-mails were in general a series of updates to the Bank HQ keeping them up to date on the situation. These are relatively standard fare during such a crisis. So he probably read and perhaps authored them.

    – People who know him say that, if Bruce says that the UN and others believe that the election fraud went as much or more in Odinga’s favor than the other way around, then that is what he heard. he is a straight shooter.

    – He may have been putting undue pressure on the Bank’s external media people to be ‘more balanced’, meaning that he wanted them to report material that was less corrosive towards Kibaki. This was probably inappropriate, but defensible if he had inside information on how this crisis was going to play out.

    – Writing down such stark personal opinions nevertheless reflected poor judgement. It is not like this is the first time such a memo has landed on the front page of the FT or WSJ.

    – But World Bank staff, especially Country Directors, must be allowed to have personal opinions and frank communication with their HQ. This is a difficult and fine line, and without more information it is hard to tell whether he crossed it.

  4. My problem about Colin Bruce’s comment was the reference to the UNDP and the subsequent denial by UNDP. I am interested in knowing whether he did wrongly quote them? He was also unwise to state in writing that the Raila side had more rigging than the Kibaki side. He may have instead said that there were allegations of rigging on both sides! Mr Bruce was very “unwise” for a seasoned Country Director that it puts to question his motives. As for your comment on the 1st lady and the previous country director, please do not forget that the Kibaki children were at that party as well…If Mr Bruce had given contrary information and this had leaked, I am certain that Kibaki family would not have been amused and this may have had an impact on the lease or his tenure.