World Bank Disclosure Policies Change Slowly

22 September 2006

Notwithstanding periodic reviews and modest advances, the World Bank’s disclosure policies continue to shield many important documents from disclosure.

Take, for example, the baby step forward in 2005 to release minutes of Board meetings. An advance, no doubt, but the minutes themselves are skeletal. The much more useful "summaries" of Board meetings, though carefully-worded to avoid identifying specific individuals, remain confidential documents.

Where projects are concerned, the key documents sent to the board for decision, embodying much vetted staff recommendations, remain secret in advance of the meetings.

When the Bank Governors meet later this month in Singapore they will be considering a major policy change on corruption. Although an early draft was published on the Bank Web site, and public comments solicited, the final version for Board discussion was not released.

Transparency suffers at the most critical points in the decision-making process.

More broadly, the structure of the Bank’s disclosure policy is faulty. Instead of assuming disclosure and setting out clear and narrow exceptions, the Bank policy provides blanket immunity from disclosure for a long list of specified documents.

A new analysis of Bank policy concludes, "The Bank should re-examine its approach to disclosure and address issues of persistent secrecy throughout its operations." The examination, "Assessing World Bank Openness: A Transparency Scorecard," was released in conjunction with the Sept. 17 announcement of a Transparency Charter by the Global Transparency Initiative, of which is a member.

Bank Reforms Progress Slowly

During the last review of Bank disclosure policy, in 2005, the Board of Executive Directors approved the release of its minutes, but resisted several other proposed disclosure reforms. Ten months of deliberation and three formal Board meetings took their toll on two recommendations endorsed by then-president James Wolfensohn.

He and the Bank management had urged an experiment with the pre-meeting release of so-called "draft" materials–actually final staff recommendations–but the Board modified these proposals significantly.

And despite moving toward a policy that will virtually force the release of Country Assistance Strategies, after their approval, the Board made sure that any sensitive material will be kept secret. The Board also approved the release of a variety of lesser documents.

IFC Revises Policies

The World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), on Feb. 21, 2006, issued new policies on environmental and social standards used to evaluate projects. The new IFC environmental and social standards for use in evaluating potential projects are replete with provisions that affect transparency.

The IFC decided to release more routine information but retained such a broad set of disclosure exemptions that nearly all information in the organization’s possession could at times be declared secret. The disclosure responsibilities on IFC clients are often made as general aspirations. Disclosure about development outcomes will not be made on individual projects

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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