By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The World Bank is rethinking its role in the Middle East and North Africa to tackle economic and social problems that sparked political unrest, the bank's President Robert Zoellick said on Monday.
The poverty-fighting institution needs to find some way to convince resistant governments change is needed, he said.
"We have produced a number of flagship reports on governance, youth inequality, quality of education, special disparities, and the noncompetitive nature of the private sector in the region," Zoellick said in opening remarks at a World Bank conference on Arab issues.
"But the record of action has been spotty. Like others, we also have much to learn," he added.
Protests against political repression, corruption, high unemployment and a rising cost of living toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and spurred uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya.
The changes have forced institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to take a harder look at their roles amid criticism they supported economic and development policies of authoritarian governments that worsened poverty and unemployment.
Zoellick said part of the process of modernizing multilateral institutions was to learn from mistakes.
"The challenge we have as an institution is when a government resists, how do we engage?" he told reporters.
"Some people say pull back, don't do anything, but often there are opportunities to ... make a difference," he added.
Zoellick said such issues need to be debated by World Bank member countries who fund the institution and meetings of the World Bank and IMF in mid-April present an opportunity to address ways the bank can support the transitions.
In the near-term, Zoellick said he worried about high expectations for change at a time when global food prices are rising, adding to the fiscal burden of countries in the region that import most of their food.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
He said while there may be a tendency to want to forget the past, there were important lessons "not necessarily to be choked by them but to understand what questions to ask going forward".
"In order to identify and explore these issues, we need first and foremost to open up a genuine and deep dialogue with and between the different voices in the region," Zoellick told the conference. "They are issues that will not go away simply because one government fell, or one leader replaced another."
Samer Shehata, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, told Reuters revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were reactions against economic and social policies championed by the World Bank and IMF.
"In many ways the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were against neo-liberal economic policies that were merciless on poor people because they bet on the future," Shehata said, pointing at the 14.4 percent unemployment rate in Tunisia.
Shehata said the institutions needed to change the methods they use to evaluate development and progress in the region, and should not sidestep sensitive political questions.
"They need to focus on the vast majority of the population and their living conditions, and also political issues like how good is the quality of institutions, is there political participation, and are elections free and fair," he said.
"It can't just be simply about rates of growth."
(Editing by Padraic Cassidy and Andrew Hay)