Interview Mario Marcel Senior Director - Governance Global Practice

By Manuel Vargas,

Lead Financial Management Specialist


CV MENA: Please share with us some of your reflections as a leader of this new global practice in these first few months.

Mario Marcel: I would say that when I came onboard, I felt the weight of the responsibility because the Governance Global Practice represented one of the most substantial changes from the previous structure of the World Bank. Therefore, we had a number of challenges that perhaps other GPs did not have in terms of building a cohesive team, creating an agenda, and updating the Bank's narrative on governance issues. I would say that during this time, even though there were so many things that were necessary in terms of dedicating time to organization, resources and so on, I became very impressed with the reach of the Bank across different countries,  regions, and cultures—  and by the wealth of knowledge that our staff have. I have worked with very capable teams in different places, but in terms of being able to have a deep discussion on many governance issues, I feel that the response that I am getting from our Bank colleagues is extremely heartening.

CV MENA: The two goals of the World Bank are to end extreme poverty and to boost shared prosperity. How do you see the links between these objectives and the governance agenda?

Mario Marcel: I would say that the governance agenda has to do with basically two things. It has to do with the ability to deliver public policies, and with the capacity to build inclusive institutions. I think that the main connection with the poverty reduction goal is in terms of the need to mobilize resources and capabilities to provide better services to the poor. The impact of good institutions is very significant when it comes to addressing inequity and contributing to inclusive development. Institutions can overcome the kind of divisions that are sometimes generated by market forces. When citizens come to these institutions, independently of their wealth and power or influence, it represents a huge difference in terms of inclusive growth. 

CV MENA: When looking at the global perspective beyond the World Bank, what should be done to give governance more weight in the development agenda?

Mario Marcel: First of all, I think that the weight that is given to governance in development does not necessarily come from international organizations, but from what policy-makers are trying to do in the field. What I see is a lot of energy in many parts of the world in trying to build institutions that are more inclusive, more effective, and that can help deliver services to the poor. I think that it is important to see that governance needs to be understood in terms of ownership, specifically having the countries in the driver’s seat.  Our mandate and response should be viewed in this context. The development agenda should be understood as something that essentially comes from countries and that is not pushed on them by the international organizations.  In this context, I think that it is very important for re-balancing the way we understand the development agenda, and the way in which we articulate our work. In the case of the Governance Global Practice, we have translated it into a mission statement that emphasizes that the Bank is basically there to support countries in their efforts of building more transparent, effective and inclusive institutions. We are already working under this basic principle.

CV MENA: What are your thoughts on governance issues in the future and a new generation of governance reforms?

Mario Marcel: The new generation of reforms will essentially come from a change in the focus that we give to governance because many of the main pieces of work on governance come from the supply side of it. They derive from the disciplines, the systems, and the specialties. We speak about budgets, about audits, and about procurement, all of which are hugely relevant. However, what I think is missing— and it would be crucial in meeting the governance agenda into the future— is to integrate the citizen's perspective or the demand side of governance into the picture. The citizen perspective is not only about consultation or participant review mechanisms. For example, when we look at audits I think that we should all ask ourselves the question: What does this mean to citizens, and why they should care about this? Perhaps when we do this, we will discover new perspectives in the work on audit of which we were not previously so much aware.  These may in turn feed into the kind of projects that we support in client countries. Similarly with any of the other issues, including also our role with regard to the ability to integrate these different elements, when citizens interact with public institutions, they do not see human resource management, audit, or procurement. They may be seeing whether governments are being fair, or whether they can be trusted.  I think that combining and integrating citizen perspectives opens up a whole world of new issues and ways of articulating governance responsiveness.

CV MENA: Regarding the Bank’s Governance Global Practice specifically, you mentioned some of the new challenges of bringing different groups together. How are you tackling these initial challenges?

Mario Marcel: Indeed, this Global Practice is more diverse in its original configuration because we are not the immediate successor of anything that existed before. People usually refer to the three big strands of work related to procurement, financial management and public sector management.  However, this Global Practice goes beyond these three functions. It comprises eight different groups because we also have colleagues joining us from the Legal Department, the World Bank Institute, and others. So, there is actually a large diversity. In terms of our global footprint, you will see that we are also the most decentralized of all 14 GPs. To me, diversity and decentralization are two very positive elements. However, they are also important challenges because in order to build cohesion and make diversity and decentralization work for better outcomes, we need ways of building dialogue and knowledge inside of the Global Practice. This has been the focus of a lot of my attention over these first few months. I think that one important part of this is building a new narrative for the Bank on governance issues. Previously, the Bank lacked such a narrative.  We had the strategy on public sector management, on financial management, and the governance and anti-corruption (GAC) agenda. However, in terms of having a narrative that is able to integrate all of these different elements and connect with the development challenges, I think that it is now a very central part of what we are trying to do. Integration has an administration perspective and dimension. It has a cultural dimension too, but also a dimension in terms of the substance of what we do and how we organize ourselves to deliver results.

CV MENA: The governance agenda is quite vast. How do you ensure that there is prioritization and focus in terms of what the Governance Global Practice delivers for the Bank and its clients?

Mario Marcel: I would say that the first priority is to listen to our clients and connect with what is happening in our client countries, because the country perspective is a natural unifier. Of course, when looking at what is going on in these countries one can see many reforms and changes taking place. However, these changes do not necessarily fit with the traditional sectors or disciplines. For instance, decentralization has a number of dimensions. It has a financial dimension, and a management dimension. It involves a different relationship with civil society. We cannot think of the governance agenda as something so homogeneous across the world as to warrant a single set of priorities.  One must respond to the actual needs and opportunities in different regions. One of the things that we are trying to do is to tailor our support to the regions, and adopt a regional engagement approach. What we are trying to do is to help our Practice Managers and our specialists in the field to concentrate their efforts in certain areas where we can provide a better response.

CV MENA: In your “welcome video” when joining the World Bank, you mentioned the connection between public finance and public management. Would you elaborate on this topic and how you see the Governance Global Practice contributing to this connection?

Mario Marcel: I will say that public financial management is at the core and a very central piece of governance anywhere. It is very difficult to think of institutions that can operate in the absence of financial management. Now, as countries evolve, I think that they find that public finance is not enough. It is a means that creates possibilities for other things to happen. Some of them are in the governance field. When you have a stable financial framework, then you can build solid institutions. However, it is also important in supporting sustainable public policies everywhere. One thing that we know about policy development is that we need to persist, as there is no magic wand that can change things overnight. An important role of public finance is to provide a basis for good public policies to maintain continuity so that they can have a lasting effect on development.

CV MENA: As you know, a significant part of the staff of the Governance Global Practice provides operational support to other practices, or what used to be known as sectors. How do you think this advantage can be exploited even further?

Mario Marcel: I will say that there are two ways. First, even though we may originally start by focusing our fiduciary support on World Bank operations and how to ensure that they are delivered in a transparent and efficient way, we are dealing with the systems that go beyond the Bank projects. There is a great opportunity to go beyond what we do with a single project in building capacity and move toward a better management of public resources, procurement, a more transparent public management, and so on.    When countries work with us they see those opportunities, and in many cases there is demand that comes to us from seeing our procurement and financial management mechanisms at work. I have met people in the field who say that they come to the Bank not necessarily because of financial need, but because they like our ability to make projects work. Second, we also engage with other Global Practices and sectors by contributing or developing some governance or institutional components into the operations. I think that we can exploit this opportunity by essentially providing added value.  This means being helpful in solving problems in the execution of sector programs, solving institutional bottlenecks that may have to do with capacity or with systems or procedures, and also identifying the right mechanisms to do that.

CV MENA: Building upon the structure and the narrative of the Governance Global Practice, how do you see these efforts being reflected in terms of the services that are provided to clients? What would you like to hear from the clients in terms of how they perceive the services received from the Practice?

Mario Marcel:        I have been a client of the Bank and other international organizations, so I can articulate this from the perspective of what I saw from that role. Normally, one seeks a couple of supporting mechanisms from international organizations. One is to help you frame problems and link these to solutions. Sometimes, as a policy-maker one is trying to resolve something, but perhaps not seeing all the perspectives and solutions.  One is not aware of the alternatives to address them. I think the international organizations and development institutions may be especially helpful in this regard. The second element, which is particularly strong with the World Bank, is the ability to mobilize global knowledge to address local needs. Policy-makers do not have the time or political space to experiment. Sometimes they cannot afford to innovate completely.  Also, the penalty for failure is too big. Therefore, the Bank can be an asset in providing global knowledge, of knowing what others have done that works — or does not work — in  a specific area. Now that we are organized globally, we can mobilize our staff across the world.   This was not easy in the previous structure. Now, we may need to look even beyond our own knowledge base of operations, because not everything happens through us. We need to reach out and learn from those valuable experiences and then use this knowledge in support of our clients.  This is why I also attach great importance to supporting policy networks at the regional and global levels as a way of engaging with policy-makers, enabling them to share with us experiences beyond their direct involvement with the Bank.

CV MENA: Regarding the MENA Region, as you know very well, many countries are affected by vulnerability, uncertainty, and conflict.  What are your thoughts on advancing governance reforms in such difficult circumstances?

Mario Marcel: MENA is a region that faces many challenges. It has undergone major political changes in the last few years, changes that will continue for some time.  We do not know how the situation will evolve, but we always have the opportunity to provide and add value to the policy and institutional debate in these countries. Sometimes this support may be technical. It may be in areas that are not so affected by politics as others.  However, to the extent that people see the value of institution building, I think that we can hope to see it growing into something that helps the country on its development path. I think that what many countries in the MENA region are seeing is a very deep challenge to past institutions, but not a very clear view of what may be built instead.  The Bank can be of great assistance because it is not enough to dismantle institutions that were prone to abuse or corruption.  What is needed is a rebuilding or replacement of institutions that people can start to trust. This is a long-term challenge, and will involve bottom-up work, for example through engagement in sector governance or service delivery in certain key areas, or some building blocks in state capacity.

CV MENA: Speaking about political transitions, what are the lessons from the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region that might be useful to MENA countries?

Mario Marcel: When I joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2011, it was the beginning of the Arab Spring. One of the first things that I did was to write a piece comparing political change in MENA countries with what we experienced in Latin America in the 1980s. I witnessed that transition.  My reflections on that time, which I think remain valid, are that we need to think not only about what we want to change, but where we want to go and what we want to build.              It is essential to provide some basic elements of stability. By stability, I mean stability as seen from the perspective of citizens, specifically economic stability and stability regarding some of the essential things that states are supposed to provide, such as security.  Political change is not only about moving from a lack of institutions to create new institutions. Sometimes, it involves replacing a given set of institutions for another kind, but one that still makes sense to citizens. In this context, one cannot always draw from different political systems or cultures.  One must actually try to address and connect with what are the basic, founding elements of a country's culture. There are still so many unknowns and ongoing developments.  Of course, there are also many differences with Latin America, but Latin America took many years to stabilize. It took many years to build basic confidence in the new set of institutions, but it eventually generated some fruitful results.

CV MENA: You recently visited Kuwait, a high-income country in which the Bank engages on the basis of Reimbursable Advisory Services (RAS). What are your impressions from the mission and the RAS possibilities for the Governance Global Practice in general?

Mario Marcel: I give RAS a very high importance because it is a way of engaging with countries that may not have financial needs, but that still face important development challenges.  It is also a way to rebuild demand. From the point of view of the international financial institutions, one always wonders about the extent to which clients are coming to the Bank because they need the loans and financing, or because they need advice on policy, support for implementation, and the like. RAS is a very straight forward way to respond to specific country needs, a good tool that can be used in different countries and settings. In the case of Kuwait, it involves a country that has a number of governance challenges. Kuwait has a large public sector that needs to work and operate in a more efficient way. Given the per capita income of the country, I think that the county could get much better services for the resources that are invested. During this mission, I could see what we were doing to support revenue administration, public financial management and procurement. There were a number of ideas on how to support governance systems. This is a country that has a very active Parliament. I had meetings with the Members of Parliament, as well as with the Executive Branch. I could see the opportunities for constructive cooperation. They articulated a need to invest in systems, knowledge, and capacity. The Bank is seeking to meet these needs.

CV MENA: Is there any other message that you would like to convey to the governance community?

Mario Marcel: I would say that one of the problems that the governance agenda has had over time is that it tends to be subject to certain waves. It ascends in the development agenda, and then a few years later it goes down again.   I have seen that, over time, one of the big challenges that we face is how to build a consistent governance agenda that is able to withstand these trends, that is, how we can remain engaged in a more systematic way over time. Regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), many actors in this process have been very actively supporting the inclusion of governance.  I foresee that governance will have a much greater role and recognition that it had with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This will be a great opportunity to update our agenda, and to maintain awareness about working on governance issues in a sustainable way, so that it does not get lost or replaced in years to come.

CV MENA: Looking into the future, what would you see as your achievements or legacy as the leader of the GGP?

Mario Marcel: What I would like to see is a legacy of this generation of governance specialists coming together at the World Bank’s Global Practice, renewing our vision  and connecting more directly with the needs and the perspectives of ordinary citizens. We need to do this in a constructive and sustainable way over time. Perhaps this would our collective achievement. We have a very capable team with a very strong global footprint, and the ability to mobilize knowledge from across the world. I see us making a lasting difference in terms of how governance is seen as part of the development agenda.