SPIA at the World Bank Spring Meetings 2024: A Student Reflection on the Development and the Climate Crisis

Written by
Devanne E. Brookins, Ph.D.
Student Contributors
June 7, 2024
Professor and students standing for a picture at the World Bank Spring Meeting.

Photo Credit: Devanne E. Brookins

One year into his tenure, Ajay Banga of the World Bank Group (WBG) affirmed the world is facing a set of intertwined challenges: conflict, pandemics, food insecurity and foremost, the climate crisis. Evidence of the World Bank’s evolution since is clear, as climate has taken center stage on its agenda and in its commitment to reform the global institution and the development practice that it supports.

The Annual Spring Meetings of the WBG convene international and regional organizations, heads of state, nongovernmental organizations, civil society representatives, private sector actors, and academics, among others, to discuss global development priorities as well as the institutional and financial infrastructure necessary to realize them. Increasingly, these meetings provide a critical moment on the global calendar to address climate change. In April, students from the Princeton SPIA course Urbanization and Development attended the meetings with Professor DevanneBrookins, a lecturer in public and international affairs, to examine the varied challenges posed by the climate crisis, what this means for developmental priorities, and how the response to climate change is reshaping the WBG institutions. 

The meetings highlighted several themes from the course: the varied frameworks for sustainable development; the tension between prioritizing growth or sustainability; and the role and responsibilities of states versus the private sector.





How is the climate crisis reshaping international development and its institutions?

In attending a variety of panels, SPIA students heard discussions on water security, energy and fuel choice, and the imperative for climate finance that underpins most if not all climate interventions. The session on water security focused on climate-induced extremes, adaptation, and how to increase investment in the sector. The panel on energy focused on expanding access in Africa to power economic transformation and fuel developmental priorities, raising the dilemma of exploiting fossil fuels or investing in clean energy. Finally, there were several sessions on climate finance and debt restructuring given the focus on developing countries. These panels emphasized the need for collaboration to address the climate crisis, raising the question of responsibility in conjunction with who bears the burden of negative climate impacts. Representatives from civil society organizations across Global South countries implored the World Bank and IMF to increase climate finance, while recognizing the need for debt restructuring or cancellation, along with the challenges of greenwashing.

The main takeaways from our visit were the following:

• The climate crisis is upending the development enterprise, demonstrating that its institutions and mechanisms must be adapted to address challenges of the 21stcentury.• There are synergies as well as trade-offs between economic development and environmental sustainability; and employing a human rights- or market-based approach to development. Development institutions must balance these priorities, while considering equity and our shared global future.

• With the limited resources of development banks, multilateral institutions, national and sub-national governments, and philanthropic organizations, there is a need for private sector investment. The question is how to harness these partnerships and investment in a manner that does not reproduce and exacerbate global inequities.


WB Meeting Themes and Student Reflections

Water Security – Employing a rights or market-based approach to development?

According to the UN World Water Development Report 2023 approximately 2 billion people lack safe drinking water, and 3.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation. This session presented a dual focus on water security, first focusing on the challenges of climate induced extremes; second seeking how to reduce risk for increased investment in the water sector. For the former, officials from Indonesia, Mali, Sri Lanka, Tunisia detailed the increased impacts on water resources – ranging from drought to variable rainfall patterns and extreme flooding as major threats to water security. Regarding the latter, we heard from private and institutional investors, that climate change impactsincrease the risk for investment in water infrastructure projects in Global South countries.

The Dutch Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Meike van Ginneken centered her remarks on climate adaptation, arguing that water is fundamental, and that technology and engineering will not solve water challenges alone. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Co-Chair of the Global Commission the Economics of Water argued for the need to redefine how we value and govern water for the common good, raising a critical question, in treating water as a [human] right are we negating the scarcity of this resource?

Zamangwane Ngwane, a Princeton University SPIA MPP student, wrestled with this argument that, “water as a human right sends the economic signal that [water] is abundant.” Zama raised the counterpoint that water framed as a human right compels governments to make this resource accessible to citizens, especially marginalized communities who would typically lack access. The panel demonstrated the linkages with climate change and development placing questions of accessibility, equity, and justice at the center of the global water challenge.


Energy Access – Economic Development vs. Environmental Sustainability

Africa struggles with severe energy and infrastructure deficits, with 600 million people on the continent lacking electricity. The discussion focused on inadequate access to energy and the necessity to address this gap to power Africa’s economic transformation, continue poverty reduction, and fuel its developmental ambitions. The President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr. Akinwumi Adesina opined, “no economy grows in the dark,” stating that universal access to electricity will be a source of pride. Yet, for countries pursuing development, the role of energy in thedecarbonization agenda demonstrates the tension between economic transformation and environmental sustainability, the exploitation of fossil fuels vs. inadequate finance for clean energy.

Godwin Obi, a Princeton University PhD student in Engineering, echoed this statement in his reflections, arguing for the need to scale clean energy technology and manufacturing across Africa. He stated, “the Clean Energy Transition is already driving global transformations unparalleled since the Industrial Revolution, and Africa – with its growing, vibrant youth population, competitive labor costs, and rapid urbanization – is poised to drive down these technology costs for the entire world.” Godwin argued this holds promise not only to accelerate and sustain green industrialization across Africa,but to expedite global decarbonization efforts.

Many also raise the question of responsibility as African countries contribute the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, less than four percent of total emissions according toestimates from the Carbon Disclosure Project CDP/Global Carbon Budget. Some lament being admonished to adopt to decarbonization measures and commit limited resources to invest in clean energy, despite high-income countries failing to meet their climate finance commitments. These concerns echo historic inequities regarding development, known as ‘kicking away the ladder,’ and suggest a climate positive approach will only be viable with appropriate partnerships and financing.


Climate Finance – Will the private sector support sustainable and inclusive development?

Global climate finance to the tune of $9 trillion a year is required by 2030, according to the Climate Policy Initiative, to limit the rise in global temperature to the Paris agreement limits. Various platforms have emerged since COP28, including the Livable Planet Fund, a co-financing platform to address climate, fragility, and inequality announced by President Banga. Despite this initiative, a shortfall of trillions remainsleading to substantial discussion at the WB meetings on how to enable and leverageprivate sector investment. Civil society representatives from Global South countries demanded bold action to increase climate finance, including for loss and damage, andto restructure or cancel debt.

Funke Aderonmu, a Princeton University SPIA MPA student, found divergent viewpoints across sessions regarding the extent to which private sector financing can address this gap. Funke shared, “during the panel on feminist perspectives on approaches to climate finance, speakers stressed that climate financing should primarily come from public sources like governments and international donors; and warned that the profit-driven motive of private financiers can undermine concerns and priorities of inclusion, and lead to unintended impacts especially for marginalized groups.” While others stressed that “private sector financing is needed to help close the climate finance gap,” illuminating debates in international development about the role and potential consequences of leveraging private sector finance for sustainable and inclusive development.

Jing Xie, a Princeton University SPIA MPA student, focused on one of the main challenges to financing sustainable development and necessary climate adaptation, the debt burden. More than half of the world’s low-income countries are either in debt distress or at high risk, with some having already defaulted. Notably, over fifty percent of African countries pay more in debt servicing than for public services. While many low-income countries are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts, Jing noted that “the high debt service burden, and the threat of default, restricts their ability to invest in climate adaptation and mitigation projects.” Jwala Rambarran, Senior Policy Advisor at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre shared this concern, stating that small island developing states (SIDS) are disproportionately vulnerable to climate impacts, but have started to successfully negotiate climate risk premiums and debt pause clauses into their agreements with multilateral institutions. Citing the success of the Bridgetown Initiative, he argued that more needs to be done to address debt to GDP ratios and repeat climate impacts for SIDS. Jing’s suggested approach is to develop strategies beyond silos, that focus on debt relief and climate finance for low-income countries including tools such as debt-for-climate swaps that allow debt for forgiveness in exchange for climate commitments.