The World Bank Group recognized the importance of the environment in its development work -- not in the 1980s or 1990s -- but over 40 years ago in 1970.
Currently, it is the policy of the Bank Group that careful attention must be given for the consequences to the environment and to the health and well-being of affected peoples in the planning of its development projects. Though the Bank had, in the past, concerned itself with the environmental effects of its activities, no systematic procedure existed to identify and examine those effects. More importantly, methods to prevent and mitigate adverse environmental consequences had not yet been devised.
James A. Lee
The World Bank created the Office of the Environmental Advisor in 1970 in reaction to externally voiced concerns. James A. Lee became the first Environmental Advisor. His office had a small staff, reviewed all projects, and recommended changes where necessary. Its impact was modest, and project officers widely regarded it as an “adversary.” It remained isolated from the mainstream so that, by the mid-1980s, the Bank was lagging behind other multilateral agencies in implementing environmental policies and practices.
Several Bank projects (including the Polonoroeste Project in Brazil and the Narmada Project in India) elicited strong negative public reactions due to adverse environmental and social impacts. Complaints were registered by the Bank’s major shareholders and from environmental NGOs. In response, the Bank created an Environment Department in the 1987 reorganization, sharply increased the number of environmental staff, instituted environmental safeguard policies, and launched a program of environmental lending. The new department was given wide responsibilities for research, developing new environmental initiatives, regular environmental reviews of projects (including authority over environmental design aspects), and strengthening the Bank’s environmental policies. Under the leadership of President Conable, the Bank’s allocation of resources to environmental activities increased substantially after the 1987 reorganization, and by 1995 there were 300 staff in the Environment Department.
| ||September 1970 - The first public statement by the Bank about its strategy for the environment.|
The Office of the Environmental Advisor in 1970 was the seed that gave rise to the robust growth of the Environmental Department beginning in 1987. The first report issued by the Bank Group on the environment, The World Bank and the World Environment, was written in September 1971. The importance of this 1971 report marked the beginning of a strategic change in World Bank policy. One of the first ventures of the Office of the Environmental Advisor was to ensure that sewer outlets were designed to keep waters clean for swimming and boating in the tourist areas surrounding Dubrovinik, Yugoslavia. In the 30 month period between July 1, 1971 and December 31, 1973, The Bank Group reviewed 434 loans and credits from an environmental standpoint. 275 of these revealed no potential problems. Environmental problems were identified for 135 and were handled by Bank staff. The remaining 24 projects required special studies by outside consultants.
While the Bank continues to address country-specific issues with respect to the environment, it has now responded to the global challenges as well by forming partnerships with other institutions.
The Oral History interview of James A. Lee, the Bank's first Environmental Advisor, is available on the Archives' website here.
This feature is produced by the World Bank Group Archives to highlight the World Bank's contributions to development. For more information concerning the the above documents and images (or any of the Archives holdings) please contact us via the Access to Information website.
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