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Access to Information at the World Bank: The First 99 Days

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Co-authored by Rebecca Harris

October 7th marked the 99th day of implementation of the World Bank's revised Policy on Access to Information. Civil society and the World Bank convened to both celebrate the milestone as well as critically analyze the gaps and difficulties of the disclosure policy implementation to date.

The panel event and discussion were part of the Civil Society Policy Forum of the 2010 World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings. The panel, moderated by Senior Communication Officer of the World Bank, Sumir Lal, consisted of both Bank and civil society representation: Paul Bermingham, Access to Information (AI) Committee Chair and Elisa Liberatori-Prati, Chief Archivist, both from the World Bank, as well as Amy Ekdawi, the Bank Information Center's (BIC) transparency campaign manager, assembled to discuss the realities of access to information at the Bank.

Ekdawi presented BIC's recently published civil society toolkit, entitled "Unlocking the World Bank's Access to Information Policy: Your key to the vault." The toolkit is intended to be a practical guide to assist civil society in applying the Bank's new access to information policy as a means of obtaining documents from the institution. She also delineated remaining tasks that are necessary in order to translate the policy into reality, such as translation of information to local languages as well as the creation of "CSO advisory councils" in selected country to assist World Bank country offices with access to information and consultations with affected communities.

Elisa Liberatori-Prati presented the policy implementation process from the World Bank's perspective, starting with a brief history. She noted that between July 1 (the effective date of the policy) and September 30th, the World Bank had received 160 information requests; 100 of which were granted, 10 were denied and 50 that are pending. She also presented the (self-selected) affiliation of the requesters, the vast majority of which (72) were from academia, 24 were from NGOs, 15 were consultants and 9 were business/private enterprise, which raised the very important question of how the Bank is conducting outreach to project affected people and how information access will ultimately result in both a participatory development process as well as overall positive development outcomes. Many in the NGO community are concerned with ensuring that the Bank's new policy improves access to the institution for those most affected by the Bank's projects, as opposed to merely providing an enhanced research database for academics.

While civil society believes that the World Bank's access to information policy raised the bar among the various information disclosure policies of the international financial institutions, it is important to also remain cognizant of the end goal of such policies: improved development outcomes and participation. Statistics indicating the various languages used in communications with requesters were also telling, as the lion's share (143) were in English, 8 Spanish, 4 French, 3 Portuguese and 2 in Arabic.

Paul Bermingham spoke to the operational dimensions of the new AI policy. He drew attention to the fact that that Implementation Status Reports (ISR) are now public per the policy and stated that 1,800 would be made public by the end of the year. ISRs are an important tool for external stakeholders as they provide information about the status of the project implementation as well as information related to progress on achievement of the stated objectives of a given project. Also noted was that in an attempt to mainstream the policy and promote the cultural shift towards openness within institution, a mandatory, online, one hour training session must be completed by World Bank staff by December 15 and, as of last week, approximately 30% of staff had completed the training.

The Q&A produced a lively dialog that addressed necessary steps to promote transparency and shift the organizational culture towards a true presumption of openness at the Bank. A Moroccan colleague highlighted the sometimes insurmountable language barrier preventing a genuinely collaborative partnership between the Bank and civil society and noted that "translation into Arabic is a main obstacle...it inhibits our role as a civil society organization." Case in point, in April 2009, a case was brought to the World Bank's independent grievance mechanism, the Inspection Panel, regarding a situation in Yemen where the World Bank refused to produce an Arabic translation for document related to a $51 million Development Policy Loan.

One seemingly large loophole in the policy involved information that the World Bank receives from governments and disclosure of documents that are contingent upon government approval. Several questions were raised about the role governments play in the simultaneous disclosure of documents (documents that are released to the public at the same time as the Executive Directors of the World Bank) and information that the Bank receives from a government. The Bank responded, "we're being proactive, but if the government says no...." It was also noted that the World Bank's position on information received from a government is that if the information is given to the institution in confidence, it cannot be disclosed without the concerned government's explicit agreement.

An Egyptian colleague congratulated the Bank on the progressive policy, but noted that it has raised civil society's expectations and questioned what would be the end result of the policy. He noted that a gap exists between information, access and the end user and underscored the importance of linkages of access to information to the mission of the World Bank, poverty alleviation. He also stressed the importance of feedback given to the World Bank and policy makers in order to accurately gauge the policy's impact, and noted that such evaluations would help the World Bank to better meet its mission statement.

The Bank shared many of civil society's concerns, agreeing that the institution "can't be accessible only in English," and stressed that the goal of the policy is empowerment of the people on the ground, explaining that "translation is at the heart of this."

Other questions were raised as to the role of Public Information Centers (PIC) in civil society outreach, as well as what types of capacity building activities would be carried out around the new policy. The World Bank responded that country offices would be the epicenter of outreach for reaching project-affected people and those without internet.

Given the enhanced expectation of outreach from regional offices, a central Asian colleague then questioned whether there would be any intention of making local offices "more open, kind and receptive to concerns of civil society." Bermingham, a former country office director himself agreed that the country offices were "uneven" in quality and in the willingness to collaborate with civil society and replied that the Bank is "aware of it and working on it."

In closing, Liberatori-Prati asserted that, regarding dissemination, translation and evaluation, "this is our next phase, to make this policy more accessible." Civil society looks forward to continuing our partnership with the World Bank in order to transform these shared goals of openness, accessibility and transparency into reality.