Pressure on World Bank for revival of B-SPAN
By David Shaman
In the autumn of 2003, I began writing a book on internal transparency at the
World Bank based largely on my personal experiences and observations from
working inside the institution. In 2000, along with my colleague David Wheeler,
I had launched B-SPAN, a webcasting system that streamed videos of bank policy
dialogues to external audiences.
The key principle of B-SPAN, based on the well-known C-SPAN model of the US
Congress, was that once the camera was turned on, the unedited streams would
allow viewers to receive an uncensored glimpse of the debates occurring within
During this period the World Bank was laboring under the weight
of an unsavory image. Despite hard work and important achievements by thousands
of dedicated staff, the institution was often seen as a monolithic empire of
rich financiers, caucusing behind closed doors to determine the economic fate
of millions of poor and powerless people - often with damaging results.
Civil society actors, emboldened by new and emerging technologies such as the
Internet and e-mail, reacted by orchestrating mass protests. Police responded
by making the Bank and the International Monetary Fund virtual fortresses,
surrounded by horsebound riot police with gasmasks, during their annual
In some ways, Bank lending missteps had manifested such an image, as did the
Bank's seeming indifference to the views of non-governmental stakeholders. But
as someone who worked inside the Bank, I knew first-hand about the
contributions my colleagues were making to advance economic growth and reduce
poverty in destitute countries. B-SPAN was designed to share their stories and
build new audiences.
B-SPAN was also an opportunity to share knowledge with development
practitioners around the world to help them with their own work to reduce
global poverty, a key tenet of then-Bank President James Wolfensohn's
"knowledge bank". Finally, B-SPAN was an attempt to connect with the
institution's critics, to show them we were listening, sharing, and ready to
learn as well.
In most circles within the Bank, B-SPAN was well received. The large majority
of staff understood the Bank needed to be more open and accountable with its
stakeholders to help the institution establish a measure of legitimacy and
enable it to mold economic policy in its client countries. Over the five years
I managed the system, we produced more than 700 unedited webcasts on the entire
gamut of the Bank's operational and research activities. By 2004, B-SPAN was
being watched by a quarter-million viewers and attracting almost 2% of the
Bank's Internet traffic.
However, the cultural norms of the Bank that had evolved and hardened over its
more than six decades of existence viewed transparency as an anathema.
Information was proprietary. It was confidential. When it was released at all,
it was highly choreographed and released to selected audiences.
Key powerbrokers within the Bank reacted to B-SPAN not just with skepticism but
outright hostility. As I began writing my book, I kept recalling an utterance
from one supervisor that "transparency was yesterday's problem" for the Bank. I
well understood that my defense of an uncensored system could end my Bank
career, but I also knew that few things were as important for the Bank's
viability as its willingness to establish and maintain relationships based on
mutual respect and trust.
By 2005, Bank figures opposed to the project had moved to take the funding out
of B-SPAN and impose costs that made it prohibitively expensive to use. The
webcasting system ossified and fell into disuse.
A new window
The story could well have ended there. But by 2011 I had noticed important
changes at the Bank that signaled a willingness to become more open,
transparent, and inclusive of external participation. Under the leadership of
Bank president Robert Zoellick, the institution has made important advances,
including allowing greater public access to project documents with an updated
Access to Information Disclosure Policy, as well as free access to its immense
databases on development through its Open Data Initiative. The Bank had also
begun disclosing its own financial data and was receiving plaudits for its aid
I sensed the time was right to begin querying officials on the merits of
investing again in B-SPAN. The Bank had the most to gain, I suggested. Even in
a time of shrinking budgets, the cost of running the system was minimal. In
fact, a pricing mechanism could be implemented that would make B-SPAN generate
revenue. More importantly, with advances in streaming technologies and new
social media tools and mobile phone applications, B-SPAN streams could now
reach the Bank's 185-country membership instantaneously and at little cost.
Most importantly, implementation would be highly beneficial to the Bank.
Millions of viewers would see the Bank as the focal point for new information
and research on development. In a highly competitive environment where the Bank
was losing market share to bilateral and private-sector financing, Bank clients
would increasingly focus on the institution as a one-stop shop for
administering their development needs. Just one project generated from a B-SPAN
webcast could finance the system for years.
Curiously, my forays were met by suggestions that B-SPAN was a dinosaur of
another epoch, an invention whose time had come and gone. One official said
viewers would not be interested in watching two-hour Bank seminars. But where
was the logic in that? B-SPAN was not designed to appeal to the same audience
as CNN, which caters to news junkies flipping through three-minute streams of
breaking news events. B-SPAN was focused on government officials, economists,
academics, and development practitioners who wanted or needed to become
immersed in the nitty-gritty of a particular subject.
To suggest this audience was not relevant was to suggest the Bank's content was
not relevant either. If no one is interested in the policy dialogues taking
place at the Bank, then why hold them at all? Why should these events be
available to staff and invited guests, but not to the thousands outside
Washington who might benefit from them too?
The drive to revive B-SPAN appeared dead until July, when The New York Times
published a lengthy article on the Bank's progress with openness. Among the
highlights was a focus on the absence of B-SPAN as a possible gap in the Bank's
transparency strategy. Shortly thereafter, the Center for Global Development, a
Washington think tank, published an opinion piece urging the Bank to once again
These developments prompted me to appeal to civil society actors to sign a
letter requesting that resident Zoellick fund B-SPAN. By the time of the Bank's
annual meetings in September, more than 100 civil society organizations,
development officials, and activists had joined the call to resurrect B-SPAN.
As of this writing, we await a response that we think will benefit the Bank as
much as anyone.
Not long after my book, The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary
Struggle for Transparency, was published last year, I had dinner with a
long-time and sage Bank operative. "The desert is littered with the bones of
explorers," he said. "B-SPAN was just ahead of its time." Perhaps he was right.
But, then again, perhaps not.
David Shaman is the author of The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the
Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency.