UNDP Panel Makes First Decision, And Guts Disclosure Policy

25 October 2006

Alasdair Roberts
Syracuse University

The UNDP Oversight Panel, established in 1997 to oversee the organization’s Information Disclosure Policy, issued the first decision in its history on October 9. Unfortunately, the decision robs the Information Disclosure Policy of most of its power.

The UNDP Policy is widely regarded as a model for other international organizations. It says that there is “a presumption in favour of disclosure public disclosure of information and documentation generated or held by UNDP.” The policy “applies to all documents created after the date of its adoption.” Requesters whose requests for documents or information are denied can appeal to the Oversight Panel, which consists of three UNDP staff and two representatives from non-governmental organizations.

There are two major problems with the UNDP Policy. The first is the lack of administrative procedures to make the policy work in practice — a reality vividly illustrated when I filed a request for documents in June 2004. My request sought documents produced or received by UNDP’s Communications Office relating to the development of a communications strategy for the 2004 Arab Human Development report.

The UNDP’s Communications Office initially refused the request, saying that public access was limited to “material intended for public usage at the time of its publication.”

This response made the Disclosure Policy meaningless, so I appealed to the Oversight Panel. At first, my appeal was returned by the courier service, with a note that the UNDP’s mail sorters did not recognize the body to which the letter was addressed. In fact, the Oversight Panel had never received an appeal in its seven-year history.

The Panel took over two years to make a decision, and only with prodding from letters of support filed by ARTICLE XIX, the Bank Information Center, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. In April 2006, the UNDP’s Democratic Governance Group chastised the UNDP for failing to comply with its own disclosure policy, while advocating transparency for national governments.

The Oversight Panel finally issued its decision on October 9. Unfortunately, its decision creates a second substantial problem. On paper, the Disclosure Policy provides a right to “information and documentation” held by UNDP. But the Panel says it “drew a distinction between disclosure of documents and disclosure of information,” and “decided not to grant to disclosure of documents … apart from what is already available from the
public.”

The Panel’s decision does not explain why it decided to withhold documents. It did not respond to a subsequent query asking for an explanation of its decision.

Rather than providing documents, the Panel provided a 300-word summary that describes, in general terms, the procedure that it followed in developing the 2004 communications strategy. The summary reveals nothing about the content of discussions or organizations involved in the discussion.

The Oversight Panel’s arbitrary decision to eliminate the right to documents robs the Disclosure Policy of much of its power. By substituting, instead, a right to terse summaries, the Panel has preserved the capacity of UNDP officials to control the outflow of information held by the organization.

In an October 23 response to the UNDP, ARTICLE XIX has urged UNDP to reconsider its decision, which is says “effectively robs the Policy of substance.”

However, the Information Disclosure Policy does not provide for formal appeals against decisions of the Oversight Panel. Unless it reverses its policy in future decisions, the Disclosure Policy will remain a hollow document.

(Alasdair Roberts is an associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is the author of Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. His URL is http://www.aroberts.us)

Links:

UNDP Information Disclosure Policy

Background documents on Professor Roberts’ request to the UNDP

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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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