Secret Summaries of World Bank Meetings Illuminate Proceedings

26 May 2009


The “minutes” of the World Bank’s executive board meetings, released publicly, are brief notations of the official action, usually one paragraph.

 They reveal almost nothing about what transpired during the closed deliberations.

The “summaries,” by contrast, describe the key points of discussion.  They condense, without names, the comments made by the executive directors. The EDs are referred to as “speakers,” and other Bank official go by “staff.”  The summaries for a typical hour-long meeting run a half-a dozen single-spaced pages in length.

Release of Summaries Requested

Despite the protective veil of anonymity, the Bank in the past has declined to release these summaries. This refusal has been based on various arguments: that the Executive Directors would speak less freely, that disclosure would politicize Bank deliberations, and that sensitive material might be disclosed.

Advocates of disclosure counter that the summaries rarely contain truly sensitive information and that especially sensitive portions could be deleted from the publicly released version. They stress perceived advantages of disclosure, such as helping observers understand the Bank and its decisions better. This greater transparency would counter the impression that the Bank is monolithic, raise its credibility, and potentially result in better outcomes due to enhanced civil society participation, advocates say.

While it may be impossible to fully test the arguments on each side, it is possible to shed some light on these rarely seen documents.

 Reading Summaries

Recently, reviewed the summaries for seven board meetings held in early 2009, from February 3 to April 7.

They appear to be straightforward representations of the deliberations, reflecting staff presentations, comments by Executive Directors, and staff replies. Substantively, they primarily concern the proposed programs and related country policies under discussion, for example, a $400 million loan for the Roads and Safety Improvement Project in the Ukraine.

While some skeptical voices are heard, the predominant tone is supportive of the proposed actions and there few indications of debate among directors. The directors occasionally refer to broader Bank policies.

At the February 3 meeting on a $400 million loan for Uruguay, for example, the Bank’s overall response to the global financial crisis was an apparent undercurrent.  At one point, “some speakers commented” that the “increased number, magnitude and pace of loans similar to the one for Uruguay underscored the need for a more comprehensive crisis response strategy.” 

Also, and fairly typical of the summaries examined, the board delved into some detail about the proposed loan, with speakers asking questions and the staff responding.  One “speaker” said he thought Uruguay’s capital market reforms “were not progressing as well as they could,” to quote the summary. The reply of “staff” indicated, however, “Staff believed that measures being implemented were steps in the right direction.”

Later on, “several speakers” asked if there’s enough of a safety net in Uruguay should the economic crisis worsen.  An unnamed Bank vice president answered in the affirmative. A variety of other questions were posed, on topics including whether progress is being made on accounting standards, dollarization, and agriculture.  At times speakers suggested alternate policies.

Acronyms Jungle

Reading the precise and dry summaries is not for the uninitiated. They contain a forest of acronyms and a sea of technical language. 

Whatever sharp language may have been used in the meeting is evidently dulled.  But at times, the character and tone of a question peeps through:  “One speaker expressed concern about using all available `bullets’ now in response to the crisis.”

The summaries are written during each meeting, and rough drafts are read to the attendees at the end. Later, the summary is polished, with some opportunity for comment by involved staffers. Circulation occurs in about two weeks, but is quite limited, to the directors and their staffs, plus top management officials and staffers involved on the topic discussed.

Board Committee Examining Its Own Disclosure

Would disclosure of these summaries be damaging? 

That debate is expected to develop during the ongoing discussion of the Bank’s disclosure policy.

In fact, for some, the disclosure of the summaries would be only a partial step toward openness. Some advocate public board meetings, even televising them. Disclosure of transcripts has been suggested as well.

The board of the Bank is currently studying what disclosure policies to apply to its own operations. This leaves a hole in the current “Approach Paper” that was prepared by Bank staff and approved by the board as a subject for worldwide consultations. The board presumably will be considering the release of summaries, along with another hot topic—whether to release staff papers and recommendations in advance of board meetings.

The Bank has made some progress in recent years toward greater transparency around the board meetings. It now publishes an agenda for upcoming meetings, a valuable window for observers. While the short minutes offer little of substance, they do indicate who attended the closed sessions, providing the names of Executive Directors, their alternates, and staff members who were present. And they note the length of the meetings; the February 3 session on Uruguay session lasted from 10:37 a.m. to 11:37 a.m.

Full board meetings are held at least twice a week. The board consists of 24 Executive Directors. Smaller board committees meet more frequently. No minutes or agenda exist for these subcommittees although they often are the forums for important discussions.

The minutes for board meetings usually come out several weeks after the board meeting. The summaries are not released and are not circulated widely even within the Bank.

Perhaps the best way to understand the value of the summaries is to examine one, and compare it to the minutes. Take the following example concerning Uruguay. The minutes are very brief. The “Second Programmatic Reform Implementation Development Policy Loan Program” (PRIDPL II) loan for $400 million to Uruguay was announced on the day of the meeting. The document describing the loan also was released.

The summary by contrast is six and a half pages long.

WB Summaries of 2009

The summaries reviewed by do not appear to contain any super sensitive secrets that would embarrass the countries involved—Uruguay, Belize, Iraq, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, Pakistan, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya—nor the directors or the staff that participated.

Regarding Niger, for example, the summary reports that the staff said that the ongoing financial crisis and recession “might have a moderate impact on Niger in the short term”—surely not an earthshaking assessment. It goes to say that in the event of a prolonged crisis, the government “might request additional Bank financing.”

Perhaps certain small bits of information would be of interest in the countries affected, such as a passing reference to the fact that Mauritius had asked for an additional $70 million.

In the discussion on a loan for Iraq, “some speakers were concerned by the 47 percent of problem projects.” This a reference to a portion of the Interim Strategy Note under discussion which states that “the number of problem projects in the portfolio has been reduced from 71 percent in FY07 to 50 percent in FY08 and at the time of writing, stands at 47 percent in FY09.”

In fact, the staff papers probably can be mined for more critical assessments and deeper information than that which surfaces during the board meetings.

Hints about the existence of other studies and documents are common in the summaries, although the same information usually appears in the staff report for the project or program under consideration. In the discussion on the Cote d’Ivoire, for example, there’s mention of “a financial sector assessment being done in cooperation with the IMF.” And later, staff indicated that a series of policy notes will be produced on priority areas next year. The financial sector assessment is referenced in the staff paper, but policy notes do not appear to be.

Questions, Limited Debate

The summaries suggest that the directors ask questions, at time even critical ones, and that the answers usually come from the staff. Debate among directors was not often apparent in the summaries.

One skeptical question came during a meeting about Morocco and efforts to increase private sector participation in solid waste management efforts. One skeptical speaker noted that private sector activities “were not cost-effective” and asked what would be done about that. In reply, the summary indicates, “Staff said that planned reforms would focus on the revision of contracting documents and procedures,” and that “further details,” probably of interest to the private haulers of Morocco, “were provided in a written staff statement circulated at the Board meeting.”

When board members asked questions, they did not propose changes to the proposed loans. By the time the proposals reach the board, they clearly are ready for approval and are usually announced later the same day.

Modest dissents were sometimes, but rarely, in evidence. During the discussion on Iraq, “some speakers” “questioned the appropriateness of using resources meant for low-income countries and immediate post-war interventions” when Iraq “was a relatively well-off middle-income country with billions of dollars in surplus.”

During the Cote d’Ivoire meeting, the summary reports that “another speaker had strong reservations” about approval of the loan “in view of continuing slippages in fiscal management and concerns about the government’s ability to manage the current crisis.”

In the same meeting, it appears that there was debate among directors about the “triggers” established to measure government performance. This is reflected in one long paragraph, not atypical of others in the summaries:

45. Completion Point Triggers. A large number of speakers expressed broad support for the proposed Completion Point triggers. A speaker was concerned that there might not be sufficient institutional capacity to meet the social sector triggers. Another speaker felt that the criteria for satisfactory implementation of the triggers should be more clearly defined. A different speaker urged the Bank to use flexibility with regard to the trigger on maintaining macroeconomic stability.

Sending Messages?

Some questions seem designed to send messages. In discussions about the 10 countries, there are three instances in which speakers inquired whether gender issues had been considered. During the discussion on Pakistan, one speaker “called for the further mainstreaming of gender in the Bank’s strategy.”

More commonly, the speakers’ remarks supported the proposed action. For example, regarding the proposed Roads and Safety Improvement Project for the Ukraine, “Several speakers commented that the project had the capacity to expand employment in the construction sector, which had been particularly hard hit by the current crisis.”

The Pakistan discussion appeared to take on a more intense flavor, with participants addressing the largest policy issues facing the country.

Held on March 26, the board meeting summary recorded that “a number of speakers felt that the PRSP II did not sufficiently address security, particularly in the Northwest Frontier Province.” The note continued, “One of them urged the bank to prioritize an engagement in difficult areas that were key for promoting peace in the sub-region and to promote trade and investment between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

At times the discussions touched on larger issues of Bank policy.  In this period there were passing mentions of discussions regarding how the Bank should respond to the international financial crisis. During the meeting on Mauritius, for example, one speaker expressed concerns about the two types of DPLs, or development policy loans.

17. A speaker said that this case illustrated the gap that existed in available instruments between Special DPLs and standard DPLs intended for use under normal economic circumstances.  This DPL was crisis-related yet subject to the same terms as a regular DPL. He suggested that the Board should discuss the need for an instrument that better reflected the circumstances underlying the need for this loan. He hoped that this could be done quickly. 

ADB Summarizes Meetings, Dissents

Among the other international financial institutions, the Asian Development Bank alone releases summaries of its board meetings.  Although they are tightly written, they do reflect disagreements.  For example, here’s a paragraph from a three-paragraph summary of a December 15, 2008, “Review of the Asian Development Bank’s Lending Limitation.”

“One Director indicated his concerns on the possible downside to developing member countries, and the consistency with previous interpretations of the relevant Charter provisions. A few Directors inquired on the possible impact on ADB’s credit standing. Management clarified that the proposed policy (i) carries no downside to ADB’s developing member countries, (ii) is fully consistent with the Charter, and (iii) does not have negative implications to ADB’s credit standing.” 

By Toby McIntosh



Summaries of Discussion at the Meeting of the Executive Directors of the Bank and IDA, and the Board of Directors of IFC

February 2, 2009, Summary

    Uruguay – Second Programmatic Reform Implementation Development Policy Program

March 17, 2009, Summary

    Belize – Interim Strategy Note

March 19, 2009, Summary

    Iraq – Interim Strategy Note

    Morocco – Municipal Solid Waste Sector Development Policy Loan

March 24, 2009, Summary

    Niger – Growth Policy Reform Grant 1

    Tunisia – Integration and Competitiveness Development Policy Loan

March 26, 2009, Summary

    Pakistan – Second Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP II) and Joint IDA-IMF Staff Advisory Note; Credit for Poverty Reduction and Economic Support Operation (PRESO)

March 31, 2009, Summary

    Mauritius – Third Trade and Competitiveness Development Policy Loan with Deferred Drawdown Option

    Cote d’Ivoire – Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and Joint IDA – IMF Staff Advisory Note; Enhanced HIPC Debt Initiative – President’s Memorandum and Recommendation and Decision Point Document; Second Economic Governance and Recovery Grant

    Credit to Kenya – Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children Project

April 7, 2009, Summary

    Ukraine – Roads and Safety Improvement Project

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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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