World Bank May Disclose Documents Going to the Board

9 September 2009

The World Bank may be moving toward major breakthroughs in transparency for its Executive Board, according to informed sources. One change being contemplated would provide for the public release of key staff recommendations at the same time they are sent to the decision-making board.

The demand for such simultaneous disclosure has been a longstanding one by transparency advocates, but has been resisted in the past by the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Typically, the IFIs release the documents only after decisions are made.

Critics say post-decision release limits public access to the critical information, reduces the potential for useful public participation, and undercuts institutional credibility. While the documents typically go to the board within 10 days or less of the scheduled meeting, observers note that public disclosure will still provide valuable information, such as which of their recommendations were adopted.

The failure to disclose key draft documents in a timely way, transparency advocates contend, conflicts with standard disclosure procedures in many countries. Texts of bills put before parliaments and municipal governments are commonly made public before a final vote, for example, and regulations are often proposed for comment before being made final.

The basic logic is that the public and interested parties should have the opportunity to study a proposal and voice their opinions about it—before final action is taken.

Yet the IFIs have resisted this strenuously.

In recent years, it has become more common for IFIs to seek public comment on sweeping policy changes, but even then the final proposals to decision-makers have not always been disclosed. Documents on the environmental impacts of proposed projects are commonly released, as are general descriptions of the projects in their formative stages.

When the staff makes its final recommendations on projects or policies, however, these so-called draft documents have typically not been available to the public, although interested parties sometimes obtain them.

Colloquial understanding of the word draft implies that these documents are a tentative or preliminary, but rather they convey the refined consensus from dozens of staff meeting — often informed by consultations with the country involved, relevant executive directors, and various interested parties. In fact, these drafts are regularly adopted without change.

Breakthrough Proposed, With Caveat

However, freedominfo.org has been told that the World Bank is giving serious consideration to taking a major step toward transparency of draft documents. A staff recommendation that has emerged after consultation with key executive directors supports disclosure of certain documents simultaneous with their transmittal to Board members.

Sector strategy papers and operational policy papers would be simultaneously disclosed, according to the proposal. These recommendations deal with major topics, such as HIV/AIDS or corruption.

Simultaneous disclosure is also on the table for a much larger number of documents, including Project Appraisal Documents, Program Documents for development policy lending, and Country Assistance Strategies.

However, sources said, this presumption of disclosure comes with a catch.

Affected governments would be allowed to block simultaneous disclosure.

Action on this proposal is expected this fall as part of the Banks revision of its disclosure policy. Bank officials have promised to release the second draft of the proposed disclosure policy—before board approval.

 

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