Timely access to World Bank documents and decision-making is a key concern for civil society groups.
Without timely access to information, individuals are unable to participate in decisions that may affect their lives and livelihoods. Without public access, communities are unable to hold decision makers accountable. The right to access information is a fundamental prerequisite to meaningful participation and democratic accountability.
The Bank released a revised policy on access to information in 2010, after a lengthy process in which BIC worked closely with the World Bank and other civil society organizations. NGOs regard the new policy as a great triumph in that it is the most progressive access to information policy of any international financial institution to date. By establishing clear request mechanisms and opening up new categories of routinely disclosed information, the Bank significantly broadened its transparency horizon.
To access public World Bank documents or submit a request for information, please click here.
Throughout the World Bank’s implementation of its access to information policy, BIC, together with its civil society partners, is seeking to ensure that the Bank implements its new information policy rigorously. BIC hopes to:
- Increase access of key World Bank documents by civil society and average citizens; and
- Enhance development outcomes through more informed civil society participation around projects and policy reform processes.
The Bank Information Center is working to ensure that communities have the tools and know-how to utilize the World Bank’s new policy. For further information please see our toolkit, Unlocking the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy: Your key to the vault.
The World Bank is a public, intergovernmental organization that serves as a banker and advisor to governments. Governments join the Bank as shareholders and oversee the Bank by serving on its Board of Executive Directors, which approves all Bank projects and policies. The public arms of the World Bank Group – the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA) – finance initiatives that are developed in conjunction with borrower governments. The World Bank has enormous influence and is a vast producer and storehouse of public information.
In the 1980s and 1990s, civil society groups targeted the World Bank for financing environmentally and socially destructive projects. These campaigns discovered that the Bank withheld vital information from affected communities, denying them the right to participate in decisions regarding the purpose, design, and implementation of projects. Under pressure, the Bank in 1985 adopted its first disclosure rules. In 1991, civil society groups pushed the Bank to release environmental assessments prior to project approval. In 1993, faced with further civil society pressure – and a threat to withhold funds by the United States Congress – the Bank adopted a formal information disclosure policy that introduced Project Information Documents (PIDs, released before approval) and expanded access to project appraisals once approved. In 2001, the Bank revised its policy and for the first time released documents related to structural adjustment loans (though only after approval), completion reports, and the Board calendar. In 2005, the Bank was pushed to finally release abridged minutes of Board meetings, though without attribution to specific Executive Directors.
Despite these gains, the Bank’s current Policy on Disclosure of Information limits public access in a number of critical ways (see Concerns section).
The 2009 review was an opportunity for civil society groups to address their concerns regarding access to information issues at the World Bank. The Bank is prepared an “Approach Paper” for a revised policy and launched broad stakeholder consultations from March through June, first online, followed by in-person consultations at both the regional and the global level. A draft policy titled “Toward Greater Transparency through Access to Information” was posted online on October 2, and revised October 16, then finally approved by the Board on November 17. The Bank’s summaries of the consultations can be found here (World Bank website). Throughout this process, BIC and GTI assisted and advised both the World Bank and civil society groups on how to best proceed.
On November 17th, the World Bank’s Board of Directors approved a policy framework with several revisions to be streamlined, approved, and released to the public before the new year. From there, seven working groups will put together the details of how the policy will function. These groups are:
- IT Systems
- Classification (of documents)
- Handbook (for detailed operation of the policy)
- Communications (both external and internal, to ensure that everyone who should know of the new policy does know)
- Training (this will include Bank staff and staff of other organizations who may want to access information under the new policy)
- Public Information (the implications for public information centers, staff and systems).
The new policy officially began on July 1, 2010. BIC continues to follow the implementation closely.
- Language accessibility:Translation of world bank documents into relevant languages is often haphazard. When translated documents are available, frequently link titles or webpages are not, making the translated versions inaccessible. Information requests can be made in many languages but users must sign up for World Bank Access to Information accounts in English. These language barriers make it difficult for international audiences to take full advantage of the Bank’s broadened access to information efforts.
- Overly Broad Exceptions: While the new transparency policy does recognize a presumption of disclosure, the exceptions are too broad. This is particularly true for the provisions pertaining to the deliberative process, third-party information, and Executive Directors’ communications.
- Public Interest Override Has Limited Application: The Bank successfully established a public interest override for information requests, but the override only applies to information restricted by only three of the ten exceptions.
- Opaque Board Meetings and Board Communications: The new policy does not call for open board meetings and rejected timely access to meeting transcripts and Executive Directors’ statements.
- Weak Simultaneous Disclosure Provision: All draft information considered deliberative is not subject to simultaneous disclosure. Countries can veto simultaneous disclosure and there is no commitment to disclose draft Country Assistant Strategies, which outline the Bank’s long-term development goals for a country.
These limitations in the new policy lead civil society observers to restrain judgment until practices change.
Need to embrace transparency culture
True access to information will require a culture change at the World Bank. The institution will need to find creative ways to encourage its staff to embrace the culture of transparency. The current incentives system for Bank staff does not reflect true efforts to foster a widespread attitude shift.
Finally, the new access to information policy is intended to target local citizens and affected communities so that they may take on an increased participatory role in the development process. The Bank must consider that among the various stakeholder groups, affected people are the hardest group to reach. Thus the Bank must continue to develop initiatives to engage affected communities.
New Access to Information Policy Info Brief
Comments on Toward Greater Transparency Through Access to Information: The World Bank’s Disclosure Policy May, 2009
World Bank Online ResourcesAccess to Information News
Submit an Access to Information Request
Monthly Summaries of Access to Information Requests
The World Bank Archives
Regional Programs Director
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