Zoellick Says Work Bank Promoting Transparency

7 April 2011

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick April 6 lauded the Bank’s work on making itself more transparent and helping national governments become more transparent, and noted the revival of interest in freedom of information in Egypt and Tunisia.

His comments came in a speech to the Peterson Institute for International Economics about the Middle East and North Africa in which he spoke about “democratizing development economics so that all can play a part in designing, executing, and continually improving development solutions.”

Concerning government in the region, he said:  “But institutions remained sclerotic, and modernization has been too partial, and too dependent on a small number of reformers, to take firm root.  Top down efforts blocked public participation or airing of grievances. Traditional forms of societal consultation were snuffed out. Governing elites became isolated.”

He noted that among other things, the citizens “want information and the right to know, and to participate.”

Zoellick said the Bank a decade ago preferred not to talk about anti-corruption, gender, transparency.  In a remark that might not please other international financial institutions that have improved their transparency regimes, he said:

Ten years ago, we were only starting to speak about transparency. Today,  the World Bank is the only multilateral institution with a wide-ranging Freedom of Information policy; we have thrown open the doors on our research and released over 7,000 data sets; we are designing software applications and creating contests to invent applications so that researchers, practitioners, and civil society can crunch their own numbers — and double check ours.

New Efforts in Egypt and Tunisia

The Bank president revealed that government officials in Egypt and Tunisia are newly interested in freedom of information.

He said:

We know that whether a country publishes its economic statistics, whether its audit functions are independent, how transparent its public finances are, all these matter.  

We know that in Egypt, for example, even many basic economic statistics have not been public.  A few years ago, we worked with Egyptian reformers to draft a Freedom of Information Act, only to have it stuck in a sluggish system.  

The transition government has now revived the draft. And it wants the World Bank’s help in bringing greater transparency to revenues in the oil and gas sectors.

In Tunisia, authorities are now taking steps to recover stolen assets, domestically and internationally, and to enhance freedom of association and access to information.

Bank Efforts Tallied

Recounting Bank work to promote transparency by national governments, Zoellick stated:

We know that transparent procurement systems matter. That how a country handles procurement can fight corruption, create competition, save money, and lead to improved public services.  We have now worked with 41 countries around the world on improving the transparency, competitiveness, and efficiency of government procurement.

We have worked with 34 countries on improved citizen access to public information.

And our International Finance Corporation is currently working on Corporate Governance in 64 countries and with more than 3,200 firms.

These are not dry technical issues. These are not luxuries reserved only for developed countries.   They reflect on the quality of governance. They improve public policy. They signal integrity.  They communicate respect for the public. They treat public office as a trust.  They may sound political, but they are certainly economic.  

These topics are part of the economics of public choice.  The public choice theorists cautioned us to think about how governments really work, compared with how we might wish them to work.  The public choice advocates have called for better incentives and opportunities for citizens to monitor government more effectively.  They are right.

Other Bank officials have cited similar statistics about the Bank’s pro-transparency efforts, but requests by Freedominfo.org  for backup information have gone unfulfilled.

Freedom Info.org recently reported on a new Bank FOI database.

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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