World Bank Board Poised for Breakthrough on Disclosing Draft Documents

28 May 2004

The World Bank Executive Board is poised to consider three significant improvements in its disclosure policy, including the experimental release of certain key staff documents at the same time they are sent to the board.

Such a "pilot project" would begin to address a long-standing set of demands from disclosure activists dating back to 1992. Their advocacy for the release of so-called "draft" documents, however, so far has been met by strong internal resistance from bank directors who fear that advance public knowledge of the recommendations will politicize the decision-making process.

Research by the Bank staff into analogous examples has suggested that such fears may be groundless, and the one-year pilot is being proposed as a way to "assess whether such disclosure raises any difficulties." The pilot project is one of 10 proposals contained in an internal memorandum from President James Wolfensohn to the executive directors, obtained by The board held an informal meeting on the topic May 4, but a planned May 20 meeting on the subject has been postponed to June 10.

Two other proposals respond to perennial complaints about the Bank’s disclosure policy.

One likely will cause more countries to disclose their "Country Assistance Strategies" and alter a policy discrepancy.

The other would allow for the release of the minutes of some, but not all, board meetings.

Other changes in the offing would provide for the release of documents including: Trust Funds Annual Reports, the Chairman’s Summaries of International Development Association (IDA) Mid-Term Review Meetings, the Staff Manual, borrowers’ procurement plans and updates, and all operational policy and strategy papers sent to the board. A variety of other changes are also recommended in the April 7 memo.

Pilot Project of Draft Documents

The "logical next step toward increasing transparency," according to the staff report, is the disclosure of documents at the time they are sent to the board.

The proposed "measured approach" toward this future will be "to first pilot-test the ramifications of simultaneous disclosure before recommending a change in policy."

The pilot project will involve the following documents: Project Appraisal Documents, program Documents for poverty reduction support credits, Country Assistance Strategies for both IDA and IBRD countries, Sector Strategy papers and operational policy reviews.

Confidential or sensitive information could still be deleted from the disclosed document.

The proposed pilot would begin July 1, 2004, and be evaluated after a year of implementation.

Jordan Stood Alone in Keeping CAS Secret

In recent years the Bank has ratcheted up the pressure on governments to disclose the Country Assistance Strategy documents, although after they are finalized by the board. CAS’s spell out the Bank’s broad policy prescription.

Bank disclosure policy was more demanding for the poorest countries. CAS’s were disclosed for the first time in 1998 under a policy that said CAS’s for the poorest borrowing countries (known as IDA countries) routinely would be disclosed unless in exceptional circumstances the government objected and the board agreed.

For the better-off borrowing countries (those using the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) facility), however, a more liberal, voluntary disclosure policy applied. In practice, Bank pressure in recent years has made CAS disclosure by IBRD countries nearly universal. Of the 12 discussed in 2003, only the CAS for Jordan was withheld, at the request of the Jordanian government.

The Bank staff found that other international financial institutions disclosed equivalent documents irrespective of the country’s level of income.

Under the proposed new Bank policy, CAS’s for IBRD-only countries would be made publicly available with the consent of the country concerned after board approval. The subtle change in policy is described in the Bank memo this way: "The onus of obtaining the country’s consent and disclosing the CAS would formally lie with the Bank-an important change from the current policy for IBRD countries under which the country has to formally request the disclosure of a CAS."

Selected information could also be withheld from the strategy document made public. In the case of any "confidential or sensitive information" of concern to the borrower, the policy would allow for the Bank to "make adjustments to the CAS to deal with any matters of concern." The whole document also could be withheld "in exceptional circumstances." The policy does not indicate if the public will be told when deletions are made.

Board Minutes for Formal Meetings

The minutes proposed for disclosure are narrow descriptions of only the formal Board discussions. In many instances, including its handling of these disclosure policy changes, an important "informal" meeting proceeds the meeting at which final action is taken.

The minutes of the formal meetings describe who was present, the name of the presenter and the broad subject of any oral briefings, the titles of an papers discussed and the agreements and decisions reached, plus the names of executive directors abstaining or objecting.

Although such dissents are relatively rare, it is this element of the minutes that promises to be the most interesting.

Among the other international financial institutions, only the Inter-American Development Bank makes minutes public, a decision taken in late 2003.

The proposed policy indicates that the minutes will disclosed after their approval by the board and that material deemed "too sensitive for public distribution" could be redacted.

World Bank, Memorandum to the Executive Directors, "World Bank Disclosure Policy: Additional Issues," April 7, 2004

World Bank, Scheduling Memorandum on World Bank Disclosure Policy, April 19, 2004

By Toby McIntosh

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Filed under: 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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