World Bank Cuts FOI Staff; Trio of Veterans Leaving

26 May 2016

By Toby McIntosh

The World Bank has decimated its capacity to pursue a global freedom of information agenda.

Three veteran staffers who encouraged the creation and implementation of national FOI laws are leaving the Bank following a reorganization.

Departing are Marcos Mendiburu, Luis Esquivel and Victoria Louise Lemieux, essentially the entire staff working on FOI matters, according to FreedomInfo.org sources within and outside of the Bank.

Their functions have not been reassigned and their departures will seriously impair the Bank’s ability to advise governments on FOI issues, sources said.

The Bank’s FOI activities have been multi-faceted and respected in the FOI community. Among other things, the Bank has provided governments with direct advice on FOI, sometimes hiring technical experts for tasks such as drafting laws. They have participated in multilateral forums such as the Open Government Partnership.

The loss of Lemieux endangers a three-year-old Bank project to assess the implementation of FOI laws. This topic has current salience because FOI implementation is one of 230 indicators of progress for the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, which the Bank has endorsed.

The Bank’s elimination or reduction of FOI-related work appears tied to a desire to increase traditional project lending, which only infrequently includes FOI projects.Governments rarely seek Bank funding for governance reforms absent Bank prodding and support,” commented one long-time bank observer. “We’re reverting back to the old-style lending bank,” the person said.

The Bank’s decision will send the wrong message to borrowing governments, several observers commented.

Reorganization Hits FOI Work

In February, the Bank held a meeting with 79 employees of the Governance and Inclusive Institutions (GII), one of four parts of a larger Governance Global Practice, telling them, without prior consultation, that the unit was being closed. Some of GII positions were transferred to other areas of the Bank. Staffers were offered buy-outs.

The FOI work was not salvaged, sources said. “I don’t have a clue who will continue this work,” commented one person.

Mendiburu will be heading back to Argentina. Esquivel is going to advise Buenos Aires on FOI issues. Lemieux is returning to a university professorship in Canada.

Bank President Jim Yong Kim has engaged in a major restructuring of the Bank. A Bank spokeswoman said the general strategy is to move away from a regional-based structure and to create 15 departments based on sectoral activities, of which the Governance Global Practice is one. A key goal is integrate so-called global work with “operations,” meaning loan-making, the spokeswoman said, and to do more “country-facing work.”

A deprioritization of Bank governance work generally appears to have occurred, some observers said, although evidence of this is anecdotal and hard to compile. The subjects of open contracting, open data, tax evasion and flows of funds seem to still be staffed, but work on FOI, extractive industry transparency, parliamentary strengthening and citizen engagement may suffer, they said. One person with perspective on the Bank’s governance work lamented that there has been “no discernable push” on the subject in recent years.

A Bank spokeswoman provided no specifics when asked about the fate of the FOI work. After a day to look into it,  she wrote, “What I can tell you is that there is some reorganizing going on to ensure that our global and local work is more integrated.” She said, “Our commitment to transparency and access to information is unwavering.”

“They will tell you that this is an important issue,” a source had predicted, “but the discourse needs to be on whether the resources are allocated.’

 

FOI Work Related to SDGs Endangered

The Bank’s FOI agenda was oriented both to country-specific reforms and a global agenda.

One project left in limbo is one of the few international efforts to tackle the difficult subject of how to measure implementation of FOI regimes, a project run largely by Lemieux, Senior Public Sector Specialist.

Lemieux and consultants developed and tested a set of indicators called the Right to Information Drivers of Effectiveness (RIDE), best described in a paper titled RTI Drivers of Effective Implementation. The Bank staff suggested that this system be used along with other sources of information to validate and complement assessments by governments of their progress toward meeting the SDG access to information goal, as described in a blog post by Lemieux.

The UN is in the process of devising the measurement system on FOI implementation (Goal 16, Target 10.2). (See previous Freedominf.org report.)

After she is gone, the Bank in late June is on track to publish a major report of hers, “A Guide to Implementing FOIA Laws.”

FOA Agenda Left Hanging

Much of the work done by Mendiburu and Esquivel involved working to governments and civil society to encourage positive developments on FOI and related issues. In recent years, they have been active in countries including: El Salvador, Georgia, Indonesia. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tunisia, Egypt, Paraguay, Mexico, Morocco, Bangladesh and Argentina.

This consultative work took many forms, including the hiring of experts to help write draft laws. The Bank also sponsored periodic webinars on FOI-related issues. Financial support for this work sometimes came from Bank funds, but also from trust funds, such as the Nordic Trust Fund, that are dedicated for particular purposes and administered by the Bank. In rare instances, creation of a FOI law is made a “trigger” – a condition for Bank lending.

The FOI staffers also have educated and advised Bank staffers residing in borrowing countries, who do not typically have FOI or governance expertise.

The Bank’s accounting system does not permit quantification of Bank FOI efforts, a dead-end inquiry FreedomInfo.org has pursued in years past. Nor is there any compendium of the FOI work.

Bank staff “in country” may continue to advocate for FOI laws or improved FOI laws, but they will lack Washington expert support, sources anticipated.

FOI-related projects comprise only a tiny piece of Bank lending, usually integrated into comprehensive loans to improve public sector performance. “The reality is that with open government issues – citizen engagement, access to info, anti-corruption – you will not have a flood of requests from government to borrow money for this, because it is not in their best interest to be more accountable,” one source said. Bank management is looking for more lending, sources said, one noting, “We were not generating profit.”

Defenders of the FOI-work and the overall governance agenda argue the potential reforms they may produce will have a profound effect long-term on the success of Bank lending. “If the Bank for the sake of budget cuts guts all the teams that are doing this you are going to have problems down the line,” said one person.

The downsizing also may affect Bank activism in multilateral governance contexts. Mendiburu was the Bank representative to the OGP ATI Working Group. The Bank in 2015 signed a partnership agreement with the OGP and Bank staffers, including Mendiburu and Esquivel, have attended OGP summits. One relatively low-level Bank person was sent to the recent OGP regional summit in Africa.

The chosen topic for the Bank’s forthcoming Global Development Report is “governance.”

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Filed under: IFTI Watch

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