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Voices Struggling to Be Heard: Access to Information and the World Bank

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Co-authored by Rebecca Harris

In the aftermath of the market meltdown and the hindsight appraisal of the opaque, intricate proceedings of Wall Street and the resulting sub-prime racket that obstructed the deadly iceberg from the sights of the investing public until it was far too late to reverse course, the call for transparency and accountability has never been more defendable. This dearth of lucidity and public information (and the accompanying corruption that breeds in dark corners) is, in part, what led the sheep to the slaughterhouse, so to speak.

With the close of the G20 Summit in London, questions persist as to what the lasting effects will be with regard to the structure of the global financial system, the recovery of developing countries whose economies have been battered by the ripple effects from the largely Northern-born crisis and whether or not the World War II-era Bretton Woods system is still appropriately functional.

In the weeks preceding the summit, expectations were heightened for an agenda that would deviate from the norm this time around. Perhaps this would be the G20 when words would extend beyond mere boilerplate rhetoric? Preliminary rumblings suggested that Gordon Brown was hoping for Bretton Woods, part two, though inevitably, a more modest agenda materialized. A March 2009 Washington Post article even went as far as to announce that the winners of the G20 would be the developing world, as support has been mounting for the addition of 10 developing countries to a Switzerland-based advisory position. Hopes were high that this time, the global South wouldn't be shut out of the party.

Indeed, the G20 did not remain silent on the needs and concerns of the developing world, though, as the Financial Times noted, the question is not so much what statements the leaders are willing to spew, but rather, what kind of weight will these words carry back home and what level of commitment do these world leaders have to following through on the lofty rhetoric once they are no longer sitting elbow to elbow at the big table?

As expected, the most urgent of concerns involved the developing world's ability to weather the economic downturn, the G20's response to which was the pledging of $50 billion for the IMF to disburse to the poorest countries as part of an emergency fund, as well as an additional $750 billion to strengthen the lending abilities of the World Bank, IMF and multilateral development banks.

Perhaps more telling than the large scale funding re-up, is the fact that IFI (international financial institution) governance and accountability found its place on the summit's agenda this year. The G20 Working Group on the World Bank and Other Multilateral Development Banks called for "full-fledged governance reform in the World Bank Group in order to increase voice and representation of emerging markets and developing economies." The working group also called for the Development Committee of the World Bank to utilize the upcoming Spring Meetings as a means of addressing and improving governance and effectiveness of the Bank, as well as to set an aggressive timeline for the Voice and Representation reform, with 2010's Spring Meetings as the deadline for said agreement.

Though closely related and yet overlooked by the G20, is another essential component in giving voice to borrowing and emerging economies: the issue of access to information and transparency, especially within the public storehouses and producers of knowledge, such as the international financial institutions. Freedom of information is a fundamental human right, enshrined in international and regional legal agreements, and in over 50 national constitutions. The push for global economic reform must also encompass this basic human right.

It seems that Obama has gotten the message. On his first day in office, he signaled a sea change with the release of a memorandum stating that government should be transparent and participatory and, for this reason, his administration would "take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use." In so doing, the Obama Administration publicly acknowledged the inextricable link between information disclosure and civil society participation and voice. The World Bank and partner IFIs must do the same.

The World Bank's Development Policy Loans, more dubiously known as "Structural Adjustment Loans" in the 1980s and 90s, present a cautionary tale of what can happen when policy is dictated in a vacuum of civil society input and how far reaching the effects of bad policy may be. In the name of fiscal responsibility, said loans prioritized debt repayment and fiscal austerity before development. Loan conditions were determined behind closed doors, oftentimes with only the finance ministers present while excluding ministers of education and health. Budget ceilings were placed upon health and education spending in an attempt to corral the national budget into what the Bank deemed appropriate, as a condition of the loan. The resulting damage to development cannot be overstated: AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa without the funds to hire and retain healthcare workers and schools without teachers, chalk or books. Many countries were forced to enact school fees to increase revenues, blocking education as an option for many of the poorest children, especially girls. Budgetary measures that directly and profoundly impacted the lives of many were decided by a scant few.

Now is an opportune time for civil society to demand their rights and lobby the World Bank to adopt a modern information disclosure policy, as 2009 marks the beginning of the year-long review of its existing policy. The Bank must reconsider its policies on access to information, as in its own mission statement, the World Bank aspires to "help people help themselves and their environment by providing resources, sharing knowledge." World Bank transparency and information-sharing is essential for civil society participation. As the leading international development institution, the Bank sets policies and standards often followed by other lenders.

An improved disclosure policy requires a shift in thinking and a new business approach from the World Bank. First and foremost, the Bank must adopt a presumption of disclosure, rather than a presumption of NON-disclosure for documents and studies. Exemptions to disclosure must meet the criteria of a "harm test," as in, would the release of a certain document cause demonstrable harm and would this perceived harm outweigh the public interest in the information? Additionally, draft project and program documents must be publicly available prior to the Board vote for approval, along with deliberative Board documents. Document disclosure after the Board of Directors has approved a project and the associated strings attached provide little opportunity for civil society input. Research and studies produced by the Bank in order to formulate loans must be disclosed as part of the Bank's commitment to information sharing as well. An independent appeals mechanism is also a necessary component of any modern disclosure policy in order to ensure that information requests are not unduly denied. Finally, as with any policy, implementation is key. An ideal disclosure policy would mandate that the information dissemination component is part and parcel of every project along with the budget and indicators to provide for appropriate monitoring and evaluation. It is not enough for the Bank to enact sweeping measures with regard to voice and vote at the management level and yet silence the voice of the very individuals who are the stakeholders and the ultimate keepers once the Bank moves on to another project site.

As the old adage goes, knowledge is power and access to information is a potent tool that empowers civil society to demand what is rightfully theirs.

For further information on BIC's Campaign for World Bank Transparency, please visit our website at www.bicusa.org