ADB Holds First Consultation on Public Communications Policy

6 May 2004

JAKARTA – The Asian Development Bank (ADB) met with Indonesian organizations in Jakarta April 27 to discuss its draft Public Communication Policy.

Nongovernmental organizations involved in the first of 12 planned ADB consultations came to the conclusion that they were pleased with the ADB’s proposals to release some information that used to be secret, but still have reservations.

‘We are satisfied that the ADB opens much secret information for the public. But in terms of quality, the information is not enough to satisfy public’s need,’ said Fabby Tumiwa, coordinator of Working Group in Power Sector Restructuring.

Fabby was the spokesman of one of two groups of NGOs that participated in the meeting. There were 45 participants in the meeting and 14 of them were from NGOs. The rest represented government, business, and academia.

Government and business organizations had different opinions from the NGOs. They didn’t argue with the quality of information at all. “I think the policy, as a whole, is really good,” said a participant from Bappenas (the government body of development planning).

Most of participants accepted as fact that the draft policy shows the ADB’s good will to maintain an open mind about the subject. Only two NGOs were not satisfied at all, saying that the draft doesn’t give opportunity for people to get what they need.

Contradictions Seen in Official Language Section

In spite of the praise for the ADB, weaknesses in the draft were pointed out. NGOs found that the ADB issued contradictory statements in the content of draft.

Fabby said the draft has too many contradictions between one paragraph and the others. One example involved paragraphs 71-76, describing what languages should be used in ADB documents.

Paragraph 71 states, “English is the working language of ADB. However, ADB recognizes that translation of its documents and other information into local languages can encourage participation in, as well as, undertaking and support of its assisted activities by ADB shareholders and stakeholders.”

Paragraph 72 states, “ADB undertakes translation on a case-by-case basis depending on its operational needs.” However, paragraph 76 states that the ADB is not responsible for the translated versions. “ADB affixes a disclaimer to documents it has translated to indicate that ADB does not guarantee the authenticity and accuracy of the translation and that only the English-language version of the document is official.”

NGOs contended that since most local people do not understand English, the translated version will be very important for them. That’s why NGOs prompted the ADB to make the translated versions official documents, too. .

“There is contradiction in those paragraphs. A paragraph states that ADB provides translation version, but the other states that the ADB is not responsible for the translation. This isn’t doing people any good, we want it be legalized,’ Fabby said.

He contended that for people affected by the ADB’s projects, having documents in the local language is very important. If they are official documents, the ADB will always have different view from the people about their content, thus contravening the concept of transparency.

Rubber Articles

The ADB also appeared to be a little skeptical about being more open to the public in some areas, the NGOs said. They saw this tendency in paragraph 88, concerning a document known as the Report and Recommendation of the President (RRP) regarding projects involving the private sector. It states: ” …RRP for private sector project are made publicly available with the prior consent of the project sponsors or clients companies and after removal of any business-sensitive information.”

NGOs voiced the opinion that the word “sensitive” needed explanation. What kind of information can be determined to be sensitive? How sensitive is it? Does ADB have standard definition to explain sensitivity?

Robert H. Salamon, Principal Director Office of External Relation of ADB responded, “We don’t have standard definition for this.”

Actually, NGOs said they could understand why the ADB has to eliminate sensitive information. They realized that not all information may be published for public. But, in this case, the ADB must let people know the reason.

“The ADB has to act as if it were a public company that opens all information they have,” said Andi Rahmah, Policy Analyst of Pelangi, one of the NGOs represented. Rahmah said, “With rubber article like that, the ADB will always have reason to put public’s information in its safety box.”

However, a business organization felt that the ADB has the right to remain silent. For business reasons, it can close information anytime it wants. “That’s not a problem for me. As long as reasonable, the ADB can close the information,” said a participant from Perusahaan Gas Negara (a state owned gas company).

Another “rubber” article is paragraph 130. It states: “ADB will not make publicly available information that, in its considered judgment, will harm the interest of ADB, its member, its private sector sponsor and/or ADB staff when such harm would be greater than the public interest in making the information publicly available. Except as otherwise specifically indicated in the preceding Section C and D, ADB does not make publicly available documents, records, communications, or information that are subject to the constraints set out below.”

Andi indicated that this paragraph is another way for the ADB to conceal any information or document. “If everything is restricted, then how can people know? Where is their right to seek and receive information? All information should be shared.”

Feedback Mechanisms Urged

Basically, all the participants in the meeting agreed that the ADB is trying to make more information publicly available and give people more access to information. Unfortunately, the ADB doesn’t provide tools for public to give feedback, some speakers said, indicating that people may only accept information, but not give information. In other words, it was said, this violates the concept of communication, where two parties have to be involved. The ADB should provide tools or at least a chance for people to comment its projects. .

“Of course people can write e-mail when they have something to tell to ADB. But, we have to realize that affected people, mostly who live in rural area, do not have access to the Internet,’ Fabby added.

Apart from that, all information has to be written in a simple, nontechnical way, some persons said. Salamon responded, “I agree with it. Perhaps, we can provide such the tools in the days to come.”

By Tri Juli Sukaryana

For other reports on the Jakarta consultation see the Bank Information Center web site.

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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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