World Bank Board Broadens Access in New Disclosure Policy

18 November 2009

The World Bank’s executive directors November 17 approved a new policy on access to information that will mean significantly more transparency about Bank decision making and operations.

The Bank’s press release said, “The new policy represents a fundamental shift in the Bank’s approach to disclosure of information—moving from an approach that spells out what documents it can disclose to one under which the Bank will disclose any information in its possession that is not on a list of exceptions.”

Although just such a shift was pushed by transparency advocates, the final product was weakened in their eyes by the breadth of the exemptions. Nevertheless, the new policy is expected to provide considerably more access to materials about projects and policies under preparation and how they are implemented.

More Board Openness

Significantly, the Board agreed to release staff recommendations about projects and policies when the materials are sent to the directors in advance of the meetings. These disclosures, however, would be blocked if an affected government objected.

The Board itself has committed to a number of steps toward greater openness. Many staff recommendations will be made public as they are sent to the Board for consideration, including draft Country Assistance Strategies, Project Appraisal Documents and proposals for broad policy changes. However, affected governments are also given the right to veto the release of documents.

The Board also agreed to disclose a summary of its meetings, not just the current bare-bones minutes. Although the summaries do not refer to participants by name, they nevertheless provide a much more detailed view of the deliberations.

The conceptual advance toward a presumption of disclosure, long urged by transparency activists, is an advance muted by the very broad scope of the exemptions.  

“Governments and third parties, such as Bank contractors, would be able to veto the release of almost any information they provide to the Bank,” according to the Global Transparency Initiative.  The policy will provide almost absolute protection to internal information through a “deliberative process” exception that far exceeds similar exceptions in the access to information laws and regulations of many shareholder countries. The Bank will continue to limit disclosures about information relating to the Bank’s budget and corporate administrative matters.

After months of external consultations and internal deliberations, the final approval came easily, according to Bank officials. European directors endorsed it in a joint statement. 

A final policy statement “incorporating comments from the Board” will be issued in December 2009, according to a Bank press release. The new policy will become effective on July 1, 2010. A progress report will be presented to the Board by the end of 2011.

Bank Officials Praise Policy, Participation

The Bank’s press release said the new policy “positions the Bank as a transparency leader among international institutions.” and “was informed by extensive external and internal consultations held in 33 countries and through the Bank’s external website,” reflecting views from many quarters.

“This paradigm shift underscores the Bank’s commitment to transparency and accountability and recognizes their fundamental importance to development and to achieving the Bank’s mission of overcoming poverty and improving development effectiveness,” said World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick.

“I am personally grateful to all of the civil society organizations, government officials, and citizens of our member countries who contributed their ideas and perspectives as we developed this new policy through a global consultation process. We have collectively come up with a policy that is in line with international best practice and opens up the development process by fostering public ownership, partnership, and participation in World Bank-supported operations from a wide range of stakeholders,” he added.

“Openness promotes inclusiveness, engagement with stakeholders and public oversight of Bank-supported operations,” said Jeff Gutman, Vice President of Operations Policy and Country Services. “This in turn will strengthen participation in the design and implementation of projects and policies and improve development outcomes,” he added.

Procedural Reforms

The new policy also includes clear procedures for the making and handling of requests for information. A new mechanism will allow those denied access to bring their concerns before an internal review group, and ultimately to an independent body consisting of international experts.

The Bank said in its release: “Over the next several months, the Bank will put in place measures that will enable effective and efficient implementation of the new access to information policy. Such measures include staff training; improving information management and technology systems; developing an effective document tracking system; strengthening the Archives Unit, the InfoShop, and the public information function in country offices; and establishing associated service standards.”

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
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