Do Clients Want the World Bank to Focus on Climate?

No, but the bank is insisting on it anyway.

Do Clients Want the World Bank to Focus on Climate?

Last month, the World Bank released an “evolution roadmap” proposing to do more on climate change in low- and middle-income countries. It is a global challenge that will have a disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest countries. But it is also important to listen to the Bank’s clients, especially in poorer countries. And it would be an act of hypocrisy and desertion if the institution turned its back on them to refocus on a problem that they did little to create.

People in developing countries are concerned about climate change. Many there support carbon pricing and clean technology subsidies. But that doesn’t mean they want multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, to make climate the major focus of their work. World Bank clients rank climate low on the issues they see as vital to development or important for the bank to work on.

In 2020 and 2021, the World Bank completed 43 surveys of client countries with representatives from government, aid agencies, media, academia, the private sector, and civil society. Respondents were asked about their development priorities, the World Bank’s role in meeting those priorities, and the bank’s performance in the survey country.

In terms of development priorities, the survey team asked respondents to pick their top three out of a list of about 28 options. Across countries, education was most commonly picked as the top priority–in 24 out of 43, it was ranked among the top two development priorities. Public sector reform and jobs made it into the top two concerns in 10 different countries. Yet addressing climate change was ranked in the top two in just one country, coming in second place in Vietnam, where one-quarter of respondents listed the issue amongst their three greatest development priorities.

On average across the 43 nations surveyed, less than 6 percent of respondents listed climate as one of their country’s top development priorities (that rises to 7 percent among the countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States).

When it comes to which three sectors respondents believed the World Bank Group should dedicate the most resources, climate change only ranked in the top five of the list of priorities in Vietnam (where it was first) and the Seychelles. It cracked the top 10 in only 7 out of 43 countries. Notably, none of those countries are among IDA recipients, that is, the world’s poorest countries and some small island states. Education; agriculture and rural development; governance reform; and work around jobs, poverty, and the economy were far more frequently put at the top of the list.

The World Bank’s results match other survey evidence. In 2021, Aid Data ran one of its “Listening to Leaders” surveys, in which it asked government officials, civil society leaders, academics, and others across the developing world about their opinions around aid issues. In one question, respondents were asked to choose six out 16 Sustainable Development Goals as areas of priority. Those goals ran the gamut from employment and poverty to education and health, climate and the environment, and so on.

Across countries, education came in first, selected by considerably more than half of all respondents as one of their priority areas. Education was followed by employment, peace and justice, and health and industry. Climate ranked 12th out of 16 overall, mentioned by fewer than one in five respondents as one of their six greatest concerns. (Below climate were hunger, life on land, responsible consumption, and life below water.)

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has noted much the same. “We talked with many government officials about what they’re looking for in reform of the World Bank and the multilateral development bank system. And what they want is agility, and they want scale, and they want institutions that are responsive to their needs…They want their national priorities to be understood and for programs to address them... importantly, they don’t want to see global challenges addressed at the expense of poverty reduction.”

Some might see the limited focus on climate as a sign of ignorance or short-sightedness. And, to be sure, climate change is a cross-cutting issue with implications for many of the priorities client country respondents do list more often. But surveyed countries are still home to hundreds of millions of people living on incomes just a tenth of the U.S. poverty line, facing hundreds of thousands of preventable child deaths each year, with many lacking access to basic infrastructure. Development is an urgent priority.

Furthermore, the focus on development goals like education and the economy is consistent with what we know about climate change and its impacts. First off, poorer developing countries emitted a small fraction of the greenhouse gasses that have caused climate change to date and will continue to be minor emitters decades from now. They aren’t responsible for the problem, and they’ll be a small part of the solution. Second, development is a resilience strategy: poor people die in natural disasters, richer people overwhelmingly don’t. Low and lower-middle income countries should be prioritizing development, both for its own sake and as a tool of adaptation to climate change.

Yet despite the facts about development and resilience and its own survey findings, the World Bank has already started shifting its attention from development toward climate, with a set of multibillion dollar climate funds focused on mitigation in richer developing countries and commitments that a third of all funding will go towards climate projects and promises of 100 percent “Paris Alignment.” The Bank is also facing increasing pressure from wealthy stakeholders to devote even more attention to climate issues, even as those rich countries open coal mines and reactivate coal-fired power stations (burning particularly dirty coal) because they, too, apparently have higher priorities than climate mitigation.

To avoid becoming utterly hypocritical practitioners of climate colonialism—but more importantly to ensure that the World Bank doesn’t push the work of fixing a problem richer countries created onto the backs of the world’s poorest people—donors and bank shareholders have to ensure that climate finance is truly additional to its traditional development funding (something they have utterly failed on to date) and doesn’t come larded with conditions. And they should free the World Bank to give its clients what they want: grant money in particular should go to the poorest countries for development, which is, thus far, the only proven path to climate resilience.