World Bank Disclosure Proposal Assessed at Consultation

30 April 2009

The World Banks proposals to alter its disclosure policy were praised for moving in the right direction but criticized for not going far enough at a three-hour consultation held April 25 in Washington, DC.

Peter Harrold, Director of Operations Services at the World Bank, indicated some areas of potential flexibility. He welcomed suggestions that the rationale for the policy be improved. He promised to be very open about responding to the many suggestions made during the session, which was attended by about 60 persons.

Regarding the proposed policy, Harrold said, If it doesnt do any harm then it ought to be available. He said the Bank wants to establish a clear list of exceptions to disclosure, saying, We are determined that as much information as possible should be around. He said that Bank wants to improve its processing of requests and provide an appeals mechanism.

The Bank is accepting comments on its approach paper until May 22, a deadline pushed back by two weeks following criticism of the delayed scheduling of other consultations around the world. Some intended sessions have still not yet been scheduled.

Harrold promised to release the eventual proposal in advance of its consideration by the Board, still optimistically scheduled for late July.

In a remark less well received by the participants, largely from civil society groups, Harrold indicated that in some areas there would be no compromise.

He said the Banks Executive Board had given instructions that the policy not allow disclosure of information on so-called fee-based serviceswhen countries pay the Bank for specific analysis work. He also said the Bank will not release the ratings of governance qualitythe Country Performance and Institutional Assessment (CPIA)for the more developed countries in order to avoid being a ratings agency. He noted that the proposed release of most aide memoiresperiodic records of discussions with countries and prioritiesis controversial within the Bank.

Responding to the Banks approach paper, Toby Mendel of Article IX, emphasized that the right to information is a human right, binding on international institutions. Mendel praised the Bank for moving toward a presumption of disclosure, calling this a very, very important development, but added, There are still some shortcomings.

Mendel announced that transparency advocates are preparing their own model policy for the Bank to reference.

Mendel and other speakers urged more transparency for Executive Board proceedings, a discussion somewhat impeded by the lack of a specific proposal from the Bank. The board decided to have a board committee examine this piece of disclosure policy and announce its conclusions later, creating a most unfortunate gap, Mendel observed.

The consultation brought into perspective other likely points of significant disagreement about the proposal.

Mendel characterized the exceptions section as the Achilles heel of the proposal. He stressed that as drafted it is unclear if a harm test applies in all situations.

Regarding the broad exception proposed for documents produced by governments and third parties, Mendel pointed out that disclosure decisions should be based on the nature of the material and the interests to be protected. What if a third party is injudiciously slapping confidentiality labels on information, asked Bruce Jenkins of the Bank Information Center, a Washington-based NGO.

Harrold responded that member governments are sensitive about disclosures that might even go beyond what is released under their own laws. Harrold stressed, If a country gives it to us on a confidential basis, we have to respect that, citing specifically financial information.

Mendel also said the Bank would offer a potentially vast exception to disclosure through the wording of its proposal to protect internal deliberative processes. Harrold said the goal is not to stifle internal debate.

Another broad area of disagreement concerns what documents should be released as the Bank formulates new projects, new development policy loans, and new overall strategies.

Harrold pointed out the Banks intention to release the minutes of the Concept Review Meeting, which would provide an earlier indication of Bank thinking at the very preliminary stage.

But speakers at the consultation urged release of more documents in advance of board meetings, such as Project Assessment Documents, Country Assistance Strategies, and other materials sent by Bank management for Board approval. The Bank is promising these will be released after board action, but not before.

Responding to long-standing complaints that it is hard to follow projects after their approval, the Bank has proposed to release a number of reports, including Implementation Status and Results Reports, aide memoires, Country Portfolio Performance Reviews, Quarterly Management Reports, and annual Project Audit Reports.

Several speakers urged the Bank to prepare a list of all types of Bank documents.

The continued reliance of 20 years as the time period for protection of documents from release was also criticized. As one speaker said, You cant imagine what 20 years means in the life of a citizen.

Several speakers recommended a review of the Banks translation policy. Others added that Bank materials should also be made understandable and that more effort should be made to get it to affected communities.

There were numerous other suggestions, including:

  • Development of a disclosure implementation plan and budget,
  • Application of the policy to subcontractors,
  • Disclosure of the Banks own carbon footprint,
  • Retroactive application of the new policy,
  • Coordination of disclosure policies among the international financial institutions, and
  • Making the disclosure policy consistent with commitments in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

The continued reliance of 20 years as the time period for protection of documents from release was also criticized. As one speaker said, You cant imagine what 20 years means in the life of a citizen.


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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