World Bank Rejects Disclosure of Aide Memoires

17 March 2009

The World Bank has rejected a request by a civil society group for a key document about a major water project in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
 
The denial is not unexpected — it follows the letter of the Bank’s disclosure policy — but is very frustrating to Mushtaq Gaadi, who works with an organization called Sindhoo Bachao Taralla (SBT) which promotes the interests of the fishing community of Southern Punjab.
 
It also highlights the importance of changing Bank disclosure policy with regard to documents prepared after a project commences, virtually all of which are now kept secret.
 
Along the Indus River, the SBT constituency is affected by the huge World Bank effort to rehabilitate an aging system for diverting the river for irrigation, known as the Taunsa Barrage. The $250 million project has been controversial since it began in 2005, and remains so now, in its final stages.
 
Activists monitoring the project requested a key document prepared by the World Bank and the government. The document is written after each mission of World Bank officials to evaluate the project. The so-called aide memoire also list further action steps and commitment by the government.
 
Gaadi in an e-mail to freedominfo.org, explained the need for the document:
 
"First, we want to know what had been formally decided between the World Bank and the provincial irrigation department with regard to mitigation measures (including social and environmental aspects). We don’t have the trust what is said to us until and unless we have the documentary proof. If we are not satisfied with the proposed mitigation measures, then we can opt to file the inspection claim and this document would help us to build our case."
 
Releasing aide memoires, however, runs against the Bank’s disclosure policy.
 
In a December letter to the group, World Bank official Xiaokai Li rejected the request for an aide memoire prepared in November.
 
Go Ask the Government

He added, however, that "it is acceptable to the Bank if the IPD decides to share the documents with others," referring to the Irrigation & Power Department of Punjab. "You may wish to check with the IPD on this," Li said.
 
The Bank considers aide memoires to be internal, deliberative communications between the bank and its client governments and therefore there is no requirement that they be disclosed. On the other hand, there is no explicit bar on their disclosure. The document is considered to be jointly owned by the Bank and the government.
 
The Bank’s suggestion that SBT ask the government for was unusual, and asking for it will probably be a fruitless effort. Governments are unlikely to approve release because the document contains the Bank’s assessment of the situation and records the government’s commitments.

A rare peek at an aide memoire actually can be had on the World Bank website.  During the course of a very controversial dam project in Laos, the Bank released five aide memoires. Here’s a 2004 aide memoire regarding the Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project.

During their November supervision visit, the Bank representatives held meetings with villagers and representatives of Sindhoo Bachao Taralla. Gaadi later wrote the Bank asking, "As the project is close to its end, I would also like to know that, from the perspective of the WorldBank, what has been done and what needs to be done with regard to the redress of peoples’ concerns."
 
SBT then followed up with the request for the aide memoire. Now the group has asked the provincial government for it.
 
Wider Issue of Secrecy
 
The Punjab situation highlights a wider information deficit that has been studied by Bruce Jenkins, Policy Director for the Bank Information Center in Washington, D.C.

In a note to freedomininfo.org, Jenkins wrote:

 None of the MDBs have managed to construct a disclosure system that provides regular and detailed updates during project implementation, either for public or private sector operations. All supervision reports from project staff responsible for developing and ensuring the implementation of the loan should be disclosed. It is hard to comprehend that during project implementation the World Bank only releases, on an annual basis, one short paragraph on the status of projects. This is such a critical time to correct ongoing problems, but essential information is withheld from those who need it most—local communities.

Citizens should have access to information that enables them to carefully monitor project implementation and to assess results of projects that will impact their lives. The importance of this issue is self-evident, but it has not been adequately resolved by any of the MDBs to date, either for public or private sector operations. "The World Bank failed to adequately address this issue during its last Disclosure Policy review. As the World Bank launches a new review of its disclosure policy, it must significantly expand access to information during project implementation.

Without timely access, local stakeholders cannot hold their officials and the Bank teams accountable to agreed development outcomes.

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).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748