ADB Holds Consultation in Washington

21 July 2004

The deadline for the Asian Development Bank to rewrite its disclosure has been pushed back for a second time, with completion now targeted for March 2004.

This was one bit of news from ADB officials during a June 21 consultation with about 30 persons about the draft disclosure policy held in Washington, D.C.

After introductions by the ADB officials present, four sub-groups met for an hour, and then each presented surprisingly uniform results: mostly rather critical of the draft. The presenters for the groups in various ways repeated the message that the ADB try for a somewhat higher standard than to exceed their “comparator” institutions, the goal laid out by Robert Salamon, principal director for the Office of External Relations, who presented the policy, and like other ADB officials there appeared receptive to many of the comments.

Although when it was suggested by several groups that the office of external relations be placed closer to the president in the bank heirachy, Salamon muttered, “Been there done that.”

The session was interspersed by very occasional back-to-reality sotto voice comments: the board will have to decide that, or the board could not cede that authority.

There was some discussion of having an independent board review the decisions of the planned advisory group to which one could take complaints about lack of compliance with the disclosure policy, but the ADB officials’ reactions seemed to give this little chance.

Other messages apparently were quite familiar to ADB officials, one of whom also remarked on the concurrence of pro-disclosure opinion between NGOs and national government officials.

That similarity of criticism was evident in the sometimes probing comments of three U.S. officials from the treasury and state departments. One dubbed the ADB web site the worst among the international development banks. Perhaps symbolic of the meeting was Salamon’s response, asking the official to provide more specific comments in writing.

There was a pretty fix-it mood in the air from participants, many from NGOs but also some from the business community with IFI experience. A fair bit of criticism surfaced concerning the ADB’s unwillingness so far to propose releasing more drafts in advance of board meetings. Loose language in several sections giving the bank latitude when confidential business information is involved, or where information might be “adverse” to the bank, also came in for criticism as it has at other consultations.

Thinking in many directions and offering about a dozen specific suggestions each, the four groups reported big problems along with lessor issues – such as failure to include local communities in the list of defined target audiences for ABD communications.

Some of the by-now-familiar comments got weary nods and good-natured “we have to work on that” acknowledgments from ADB officials.

ADB Agrees to Prepare List of Project Documents

NGOs were pleased to learn just before the consultation that the ADB agreed to a request for a list of all the documents involved in the project development process.

After the completion of the consultations this summary, a summary of comments and the ADB reaction is to be prepared along with another draft, the W-paper, which is now supposed to be available this fall. Paradoxically, the “restricted” final staff proposal to the board will not be disclosed, as a result of the current restrictions.

NGO Perspectives Widely Shared

In many respects the viewpoints of NGO representatives seemed widely shared. Criticisms of the ADB proposal as being short on administrative due process and long on administrative discretion were frequent and went undisputed.

Perhaps deeper currents of disagreement floated in a few conversations concerned protections for the private sector information, and there the debate seemed lacking in specifics.

The ADB staff has already seemed to recognize this weakness; concerning what is confidential business information, and admitted they needed help to better describe it. Article 19 has been asked specifically to devise a definition.

So there continues to be much apparent uncertainty about how to handle business confidentiality. One IFI representative argued that corporations wouldn’t approach the banks without certain non-disclosure protections and might prefer to go to the private sector. In reply, a U.S. government official and an NGO representative noted that getting financing from the private sector would be better if they could.

It was suggested that certain data could harm the companies, but also argued that nobody wants the formula for Coca Cola and that the terms of the deal, including details such as how much the government would pay for electric power or the company’s environmental obligations, ought to be made public. Would disclosure discourage private sector proposals? The conversations to draw out the examples and nuances were necessarily foreshortened by time constraints.

One instructive small exchange involved a person from the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, who wondered at the believability of the ADB promise to publish why it turned down each private sector project proposal. No candor would be expected if the bank investigation had turned up the potential for fraud, she pointed out.

The ADB staff seemed a bit weary with suggestions that they develop ways to analyze and measure the success of its communications policy. They have a “knowledge management policy” review also under way, to solicit views on how to internally collect and share information. And a “participation” project also is apparently in the works.

These wider policy connections came into play during a discussion of translation policy. Diverse comments were heard, with one IFI official advocate translations into official national languages only, to help encourage the use of those languages as unifying factors. Another person expressed the viewpoint that the unofficial local languages are the most important to consider.

The draft policy leaves room for flexibility and in many respects encourages effective communications with affected communities.

One little linguistic sidelight, Salamon mentioned that in most of the countries they have visited there is no comparable word for “accountability.”

By Toby J. 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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