Observations from the World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings

Twice a year the leaders of international financial institutions and representatives of world governments are joined by a range of other attendees to set the priorities of two of the most important parts of the world economy: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Emily and I joined the Spring Meetings this year in Washington DC, taking the opportunity to meet with many of our friends, clients and collaborators. It was a pleasure to connect with those involved in our work on public finance reform, and others who are working on digital government initiatives that attract international finance.

With a range of challenges facing the global economy today, the Spring Meetings were an opportunity for financial leaders to engage with burning issues like climate financing, debt sustainability, and overall governance reform. Many attendees were disappointed with the limited progress made on some of these issues, and the inadequate pace of change as laid out in the World Bank’s roadmap. A lot of hope is now pinned on this week’s Paris Finance Summit.

Nevertheless, we were struck at this year’s meetings by the degree to which all things digital were front and centre.

Digital is high on the agenda

Be it digital tools for transparency, digital transformation to help governments deliver better, or digital infrastructure to accelerate societies, there was a strong consensus at the highest levels that we need to learn how to harness the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era if we are to achieve any of the significant changes the world needs.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at the plenary panel on Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) convened by IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva. Introduced by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and chaired by Julia Chatterley the panel featured (philanthropist, InfoSys chairman and politician) Nandan Nilekani, (Paypal president) Dan Schulman and (philanthropist) Melinda French Gates.

The Spring Meeting plenary panel on Digital Public Infrastructure
The Spring Meeting plenary panel on Digital Public Infrastructure

It was heartening to see such a prominent panel making the case for digital infrastructure, and to hear the examples of big picture progress emerging from the discussion. Similar discussions have been taking place around this year’s G20 meetings.

Particularly notable was the story of digital infrastructure having enabled India to achieve 80% of financial inclusion in six years, compared to the 46 years this would have taken without the use of its DPI, India Stack. Panellists also drew attention to the impact that better digital payments (enabled through DPI) had had on individuals, such as female business owners in India, whose access to digital bank accounts has been transformative in helping to combat gender inequality.

These stories - and their implications for the future of digital infrastructure across the world - created a sense of optimism and commitment around digital at this year’s Spring Meetings.

Invest in the conditions for success

Working as we do with leaders grappling with the specifics of how to transform their organisations, the questions we are asked at Public Digital tend to revolve around digital leadership. How can that optimism and commitment about digital be channelled in the most effective way to achieve impact? Essentially: how do the leaders in the audience create the conditions for success?

Of the flagship success stories in digital government so far, a common theme is that the governments responsible have invested in institutional change in order to deliver digital change.

India’s big push for identity and payments was managed through the formation of new statutory authorities; the UK and many others have government digital units with carved-out freedoms and authorities; Rwanda developed Irembo as a carefully structured public-private partnership; Bangladesh’s a2i has taken a number of institutional forms as its remit has developed; just in the past couple of weeks Nova Scotia has given their digital work departmental status.

For leaders, those institutional structures bear close examination. There is no one model to suit every context. In fact, no two models are identical. But the reality is that we are unable to deliver the digital goods and infrastructure of tomorrow through the delivery structures of yesterday. New institutional structures have been essential to creating space and incentives to deliver different benefits in different ways.

The next time this group of leaders and funders gather together (and ideally, well before that) we hope to see deeper conversations and commitments around creating these conditions for success. We’d like to see leaders learning from what has worked (and what hasn’t) and funding the institutions for the future.

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