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Inspection Panel Chairperson reflects on lessons from her career

Ramanie Kunanayagam

Ramanie Kunanayagam. Photo by Dominic Chavez

You tell people what they need to hear

Inspection Panel Chairperson Ramanie Kunanayagam reflects on the importance of staying neutral while upholding the truth.

By John Donnelly

Ramanie Kunanayagam, the Chairperson of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, has had no shortage of challenging assignments. For much of her 30-year career, she worked for large private sector corporations in the extractive industries, including several leadership roles overseeing environmental and social issues and human rights concerns. She also has experience working in the field both for the private sector and, early in her career, at the World Bank as a senior mining social specialist. Through it all, as she recalled in this interview with Accountability Matters, she has learned the importance of raising uncomfortable truths and understanding that there are many sides to an issue. She has been a member of the Inspection Panel since 2018 and Chairperson since January 2022. Her term will end in December 2023. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


Over the course of your career, what have you learned that has helped shape your approach to solving problems?

There are a couple of things that I’ve carried with me my entire career. One is that you don’t compromise on the truth. The jobs that we do often put us in a position where we have to tell our paymasters certain facts or pieces of information or provide our own analysis of a situation. This may not be what they want to hear, or it may not necessarily be good news from their perspective. So a clear principle I’ve always had is that you have to speak the truth, no matter how unpalatable it is. You don’t tell people what they want to hear, you tell people what they need to hear.

Another principle is understanding that all jobs carry a number of responsibilities. I am very conscious of the responsibility that we are often the bridge between very senior or the highest levels of decision making, and people who are some of the least empowered in the world. Even in my previous jobs, when I worked in the corporate sector or when I worked in operations in the field, I was often the only person who had a direct channel to the managing director or the CEO, and I was also the only person who knew what was happening on the ground in those communities. You analyze information both ways. When I worked for the corporations, I was conscious that I was employed by an institution, and I had to abide by their rules and serve the institution. I was not an activist. But I had a lot of responsibilities in terms of enabling both sides to see the issues from each other’s perspective.

You have a responsibility to your employer, but you also have a responsibility to the people who are affected by the organization you work for. You have to represent as accurately as possible the experiences, the perceptions, the impacts, how people felt they were affected by a particular investment or development or infrastructure.


How do you ensure fairness in a case where there’s a great power imbalance?

First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I don’t believe you can address decades, and in some cases centuries, of inequality by your work on a single case. I think you can try to minimize it. You can be very conscious about that in terms of giving people an equal voice and ensuring that one side is not overwhelmed by the other. But the idea that we can redress inequalities through one of our processes, frankly, I think, is nonsense because these power imbalances are fundamental, they’re deep, they’re intergenerational, and there are multiple factors that affect that power imbalance.

The important part is for people in decision-making positions to understand the consequences of their actions. When you look at mega-projects, some of them would be like the equivalent of a third of the GDP of that country. When you have that level of influence over an economy, a country, a region, or a community, that comes with a lot of responsibility. Now, how are those responsibilities defined? They are defined through the laws of the country. They are defined through international laws and standards. They are defined through norms and conventions on what responsible investment means and what responsible development is. It is taking into account all of that. What you look at then is what should be done. And that, to me, in a way helps to at least identify what that power imbalance means.


Turning to the Inspection Panel, which will mark its 30th anniversary this year, can you name a single case that has had especially far-reaching impact?

In recent years, a landmark case was a Uganda transport sector development project. The issues highlighted by the Inspection Panel investigation concerned gender-based violence. This case had a massive impact on the World Bank and on those outside of the Bank, including the Ugandan Government and other multilateral development banks. The major lesson was that we needed to put in place the necessary policy requirements, necessary safeguards, to actually prevent gender-based violence. In the World Bank, that led to a task force on gender-based violence, the strengthening of the procurement process in terms of contractor selection, and a guidance note for staff on labor influx. The Bank also suspended all civil works in its transport portfolio in Uganda until they could put in place the mitigation measures and the policy measures.


You said earlier that you were not an activist. But do you consider yourself an accountability activist?

I don’t — because I work within an accountability mechanism where we have to be neutral. We are totally dedicated to the integrity of our mandate and our policies. That’s what we have to ensure. But I am outspoken. If you ask me for a view, if I have one, I will provide it.


What’s your view then of the biggest issues that face all independent accountability mechanisms? Is it the threat of reprisals to people who bring complaints? Remedy for communities? Access to the mechanisms themselves?

I think one thing that really worries me going into the future is … how do you enable the accountability mechanism to be effective and carry out its work? I think this is an ongoing tension that anyone working in accountability mechanisms has to deal with. There are always forces, sometimes internal, sometimes external, that are looking to limit the power and the ability of the accountability mechanism to do its job. We are constantly pushing against a force that is trying to limit what we can do.


Could you expand on that?

There is a natural tension when an investigatory body scrutinizes a project of a multilateral development bank.  In a way, we are at a time and place when institutions need independent mechanisms but the nature of the work can be uncomfortable to those who are being held accountable. Please note I am talking broadly here about accountability in general. A challenge for our independence is to avoid a situation that can lead to an unwanted place where you have an accountability mechanism that actually is not effective, that can’t do its work, but exists. It’s like an insurance package that is a cost to bear for an institution, but, from the institution’s perspective, there can sometimes be a risk that the institution is quite happy for the mechanism not to do anything.


Can you talk about the value of working on accountability issues? Do you think for World Bank staff, or staff at any multilateral development bank, it would be worthwhile to work for a few years on an independent accountability mechanism?

I totally do, because you get to see a development project from a completely different perspective. On the Inspection Panel, you have the opportunity to do an in-depth forensic analysis of how some of the World Bank’s projects are being managed on the ground, specifically on the application of environmental and social policies and standards. I think that experience is invaluable. At the same I think it is important to understand, as in the case of all jobs, the importance of trade-offs. For instance, while the work is always interesting and diverse, the opportunities for vertical progression can often get capped at a certain level, which I may add is common to a number of organizations. 

However, I believe working at the Inspection Panel can totally change how you would approach your work and give you a much greater depth of understanding of the impacts of development. And it would give you a lot more confidence and expertise on how to manage those projects as no two cases are the same. It also gives you access to the most senior level of decision makers, which is unique compared to other areas of work. 

Published in January 2023

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