World Bank Pulling Back on Transparency Pilot Project

21 December 2004

The World Bank’s board of executive directors is resisting pro-transparency reforms recommended by Bank president James Wolfensohn, cutting back particularly on his proposals to experiment with the release of "draft" materials.

It now appears that the board has decided against a proposal to let the public see a handful of key documents at the same time that executive directors do. For example, the board seems to have rejected allowing earlier disclosure of the final staff memos about proposed projects. Nor will the board permit earlier release of other important documents, including the far-reaching Country Assistance Strategies.

Experimenting with the faster release of these documents, now issued only after the board acts, was envisioned as part of a "pilot project" in greater transparency, advocated in a June memo from the Bank management and endorsed by Wolfensohn.

As a result of the internal debate, the board is taking longer than expected to conduct a review of Bank disclosure policy, having held two formal and two informal closed meetings on the topic over six months, the most recent on Nov. 18. The briefing memo dated Oct. 14, obtained by, reveals the ways in which the pilot project has been scaled back.

On the other hand, the 14-page document includes at least a dozen proposals to liberalize on several other fronts. Once the board approves the policy changes, documents that may be released include: board minutes, the operations manual, the Trust Funds Annual Report, procurement plans, IMF-World Bank Relations Annexes, Country Reengagement Notes, the bank’s administrative budget, and others.

The October memo sets a strong standard regarding what types of information may be released by the 24 executive directors. Among other things, the proposal would bar executive directors from releasing their own statements unless the board approves.

Pilot Project Diminishes in Scope

The pilot program was designed as a way for the Bank to allow more disclosure on a trial basis, without changing official policies barring the disclosure of certain key documents.

The "logical next step toward increasing transparency," according to the May 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 proposed in May, with Wolfensohn’s support, would have involved releasing certain documents in what is sometimes called "draft" form. Confidential or sensitive information could still be deleted from the disclosed document. The proposed pilot was to have begun July 1, 2004, and been re-evaluated after a year.

The Project Appraisal Document was one of those included in the pilot project. One of the common documents put before directors, a PAD summarizes the Bank staff’s opinion about a proposed project and advised on any conditions.

Also to be part of the pilot program, according to the May memo, were drafts of the Country Assistance Strategies (CAS) for both IDA and IBRD countries. They are no longer included. The October memo also addresses the policy on the subsequent release of the CAS, stressing that they are to be released only after approval. .

Another candidate for the pilot program was the Program Documents for poverty reduction support credits.

In the October report, "after careful consideration of the Executive Directors’ views on this matter," the pilot project is reduced in scope.

The pilot project would now cover only operational policy reviews, providing the board specifically agrees. The document sent to the board in advance of its formal meeting would be released under the proposed policy.

Counting on the Minutes

The World Bank may join the Inter-American Development Bank in releasing board meeting minutes. Some restrictions may limit their utility.

To begin with, the Bank’s working paper notes their sparse nature, who’s present, approval of the previous minutes, the presenter and "broad" subject of any oral briefings, titles of papers discussed, the agreements and decisions reached, and the names of executive directors abstaining or objecting. Transcripts and summaries are not to be released. The proposed minutes policy will exempt "executive sessions," and the minutes will be devoid of material "too sensitive for public distribution."

In the July memo, the Bank staff noted, "In fact, given the limited information in minutes, it would be appropriate to ask what additional value their disclosure would provide." The answer, the staff continued, "may be somewhat tautological."

"Because minutes are not disclosed, there is a perception that they may contain information that is of significant public value, that the Bank’s deliberative processes are not transparent, and that overall, the Bank is not as transparent a public organization as it can be. Disclosure would remove this ‘mystique,’" the report advised.

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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