EBRD Modifies Disclosure Policy; US Says Reforms Insufficient

1 May 2003

The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development April 29 approved amendments to its Public Information Policy over the objections of the United States.

Specifically, the United States urged the bank to release draft versions of proposed country strategies before they are sent to the executive board for approval. The United States also pushed for the bank to issue summaries of board meetings, for release of all Project Summary Documents, and for earlier disclosure of environmental assessment documents.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary John Taylor May 4 cited governance issues in his formal statement at the EBRD annual meeting. “We are disappointed that most shareholders recently agreed to fairly modest approaches relative to what they have pushed in the Boards of other Multilateral Development Banks.” He continued, “We believe that the new public information policy and independent recourse mechanism should be improved to provide greater disclosure, independence, and scope.” (http://www.ebrd.com/new/am/program/speeches/index.htm)

The EBRD would not comment on the voting, and did not issue a press release on the new public information policy. The London-based institution approved two related policies considered simultaneously, one on environmental policy (which the U.S. supported) and another establishing an “independent recourse mechanism” for outside complaints (on which the U.S. abstained).

All three policies are available at http://www.ebrd.org/about/strategy/index.htm.

Inviting Comment on Country Strategies

As approved by the EBRD, the new public information policy makes a small step toward encouraging public input with regard to the preparation of country strategies.

Under the new policy, the EBRD will invite public comment as input to the preparation of each new country strategy. Such comment will be on the basis of the existing country strategies, now disclosed after approval, plus a new document. This will be in the form of “an accompanying management note outlining the main areas to be focused on in the review.” Those interested in commenting will have eight weeks to file them.

After that, all disclosures will be made after board approval.

An “annex” summarizing the public comments, along with staff responses, will be prepared for the bank’s decision-makers, to be released after approval of the new strategy. The strategy itself also will be posted on the bank’s web site “following consultation with the country concerned, if such consultation is requested by the national authorities.” The released document may have portions deleted based on a list of nine exceptions contained in the public information policy. These potential justifications for deleting materials include information which, if disclosed, “would seriously undermine the policy dialogue” with the affected country. Any excluded material “will be flagged” to the board of directors.

In rejecting the suggestion from outside groups that a draft country strategy be released in advance of board consideration, the bank staff said that it “was considered.” In addition to posting the new information policy to the EBRD web site, the bank released a summary of public comments received plus staff comments.

Some commenters noted that the EBRD does release drafts of proposed “sectoral strategies,” but not drafts of country strategies. The staff replied by saying that the broad sectoral policies are considered over a longer time frame and when reviewed may be subject to significant change. Country strategies, reviewed on a two-year cycle, “are unlikely to experience dramatic change,” so the existing policy in conjunction with the planned management note on key issues “provides adequate information for the public to comment,” the staff wrote.

The EBRD also estimated that releasing a draft strategy would add 10 weeks to the gestation period for the strategy. “This would make the entire process unduly protracted and more time-consuming for Resident Offices and Country Teams, especially given that the Bank is required to present a new strategy for each country of operations on a biennial basis.”

Translation Policy Expanded Slightly

The EBRD also decided to begin a one-year pilot project during which time the Bank will translate country strategies in to “the relevant official national language.” If there is more than one, and one of them is an official working language of the Bank, the translation will be only in such working language. The EBRD’s official working languages are English, French, German and Russian.)

Expanded translation of a number of other documents – sector policies, project summary documents, and Environmental Impact Assessments – was also considered.

The Bank decided that translating sector policies and project summary documents into more languages “presents complex organisational and logistical problems.”

In 23 countries of operations there is one official national language that is not one of the four official languages. In three countries there are two official languages (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyz Republic), and in Bosnia & Herzegovina there are three. In these countries, translation will be in Russian.

Public Comments on Project Documents Addressed

The bank’s summary of public comments also touched on a position, supported by the United States, favoring release of more Project Summary Documents.

Under current EBRD policy, not changed in the new policy, “client confidentiality” may be used as a reason for delaying disclosure of a Project Summary Document. Some commenters urged the EBRD to follow the lead of the World Bank and the IFC, whose procedures do not include such an exception. The EBRD response notes only that “derogations from the release timeframes …. Are authorized in cases pf commercial confidentiality, or listed companies’ compliance with stock exchange regulations.”

The bank also maintained its position that Project Summary Documents will not be translated into local languages.

Transparency of Board Proceedings

Regarding another topic not addressed in the new policy, the bank staff rejected suggestions that board minutes, a record of the votes, or concluding remarks by the president should be disclosed. In addition to citing the rules of procedure, the staff noted, “The ethos of the Bank is to arrive at a decision on a consensus basis and publication of its proceedings is therefore not considered appropriate.”

The staff also rejects more than a dozen other suggestions for greater transparency.

Independent Recourse Mechanism

The EBRD also established a mechanism to receive complaints from groups who are, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a bank-financed project. In addition, the IRM body may consider some “project specific” issues related to possible non-compliance with the public information policy.

Under the IRM procedures, complaints would be submitted to the Chief Compliance Officer, who would determine, along with the help of an appointed independent expert, whether, the complaint met stated criteria. Once approved the CCO and the expert would assess the complaint and make a report to the EBRD president.

Environmental Policy Also Modified

The United States also was unsuccessful in persuading the EBRD’s members to release more Environmental Impact Assessments earlier.

Instead, the bank retained its policy that EIAs for private sector projects will be released a minimum of 60 days before board consideration, but that for public sector projects, this period will be for a minimum of 120 days.

The United States unsuccessfully lobbied for a 120-day rule for both pubic and private projects, the policy at the Asian Development Bank.

In reacting to this, the bank staff said the 60 days is a minimum requirement. It further said, “The longer time period for public sector projects reflects the slower rate that public sector projects typically move through the Bank; it does not reflect that the EIA document is any more or less complicated.”

By Toby McIntosh

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ABOUT IFTI WATCH

In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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