Critics Fault ADB Draft Public Communications Policy

21 December 2004


The Asian Development Bank’s second draft of a new communications policy is meeting with some praise, and also with continuing criticism.

Common themes included: demands for more disclosure about private sector operations, recommendations for releasing the key documents as they go to the board, and appeals for an independent appeals process.

The comments are posted at: http://www.adb.org/Disclosure/second-draft.asp

The ADB process moving forward envisions the public release of a working paper, probably in January, followed by a 30-day comment period. After that, an “R-paper” (“R” for restricted) of final staff recommendations would be sent to the board, early next year. Although there is precedent for releasing R-papers, the ADB staff has indicated that this would not be the case with the Public Communications Policy. The ADB hopes to complete action on the PCP before the annual meeting in May.

39 Groups Send Joint Letter

The most comprehensive comments came from a consortium of 39 groups headed by Article 19 of the United Kingdom, the Bank Information Center of the United States, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative of India.

Points of progress were cited in the opening of the group letter. In particular, they praised ADB plans to post agendas three weeks in advance of board meetings, and to publish board minutes once approved. The ADB’s work toward a translation strategy was encouraged, although more effort toward dissemination of information was urged.

Plans for disclosure of information during project implementation also were favorably noted, as was a general commitment to establish a general presumption in favor of disclosure.

The joint letter, however, also identified eight deficiencies of the Public Communications Policy (PCP):

  • The policy constrains the role of the Compliance Review Panel,
  • A more independent appeals mechanism is needed,
  • Blanket prohibition of information release concerning private sector lending should be removed,
  • Aide Memoires and Project/Program Progress Reports should be routinely disclosed,
  • All draft policy and strategy documents should be released,
  • Public and private sector draft RRPs and R-Papers pertaining to safeguard policies, other operational policies, and sector and thematic strategies should be released and summaries of Board discussions on the above also should be disclosed,
  • The restrictions on disclosure of internal documents generally should be narrowed, and
  • A staff directory and a more detailed budget should be published.

Overall, the joint letter concluded that the policy “is in some ways progressive” but is deficient compared to many national disclosure laws.

South Asian Statement

Another joint letter was sent by 13 civil society organizations in South Asia, that called the changes made in the second draft “few and cosmetic.” The commentary was sent by groups including South Asian Solidarity for Rivers and Peoples of Nepal, Brahmaputra Barak Rivers Watch of India, and Delhi Forum of India.

Among 19 recommendations, the groups suggested that disclosure be oriented more toward project-affected communities and citizens, not toward industry, the private sector and government. The policy should be “unambiguously in favour of full disclosure and not allow for selective interpretation by ADB management and project staff,” the letter stated.

In addition, the groups argued that no distinction should be made between public and private sector lending and projects. “The draft is extremely weak on private sector projects,” wrote the groups.

The letter stressed a need for an independent appeals body and liberalized standards defining who may bring a matter before the Compliance Review Panel.

The groups also sought more information on plans for information dissemination beyond the Internet.

Japanese Groups Criticize Second Draft

Further criticisms were brought by three Japanese-based groups who began by urging the ADB to adopt a stronger translation policy. While praising some advances in the institution’s plans for disclosure during the implementation phases of projects, the groups suggested additional documents could be disclosed.

Transcripts of board meetings should be made available, the Japanese groups also said, also urging that the final papers sent to the board by the staff be made public when they are circulated to the board.

Like other commenters, the Japanese groups pushed for more release of information about private sector operations, specifically asking for release of the Report and Recommendations of the President, social and environmental monitoring reports, project completion reports, feasibility studies, and legal agreements.

Improvements in the appeals process and accountability system also are recommended.

The filing was made by Friends of the Earth Japan, Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society, and Mekong Watch Japan.

View from the South Pacific

Serge Belloni, projects officer of the University of the South Pacific, Fiji Islands, called for more effort to be put into functional transparency, saying disclosure was not enough. Outreach beyond elite populations is necessary, he said, also stressing that the ADB will need to share information if it wants information.

Among Belloni’s comments was an argument for international standards on transparency. He wrote, “In other words, a guarantee of effective transparency would demand that the freedom of ADB not to disclose information is limited by some kind of international law, and not by corporate decisions that fluctuate according to circumstances.”

Addressing secrecy in the early stages of policy development, Belloni said, “In as far as the future course of action is encapsulated in initial decisions, and these are based on assumptions and interpretations, they determine the final destination.” He criticized some of the exemptions from disclosure as ambiguous. Disclosing arguably sensitive “strategic information is the acid test of the claim to transparency,” according to Belloni.

He also warned the bank against flooding people with too much information, and urged to bank to focus on providing information “rich in content.”

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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