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Rebecca Harris

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Knowledge Is Power: Transparency and Participation Will Be the Drivers of Effective Development

Posted: 04/19/11 01:08 PM ET

World Bank President Robert Zoellick and civil society representatives recognized transparency as a trigger for citizen engagement and aid effectiveness during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings held in Washington, DC, April 13-17.

Panel events held as part of the Civil Society Policy Forum examined linkages between aid and budget transparency, citizen engagement and development effectiveness. Participants considered key questions surrounding aid as a means to empower citizens of aid recipient countries, the role of international institutions, such as the World Bank in designing programs that empower citizens to play an active role in the development process, as well as the cardinal function access to information plays in promotion of citizen engagement, good governance and effective and inclusive aid processes.

Zoellick reiterated the Bank's pledge to strengthen efforts around transparency and civic engagement in a policy address at the Petersen Institute for International Economics, preceding this year's Spring Meetings. "Our message to our clients, whatever their political system, is that you cannot have successful development without good governance and without the participation of your citizens...We will encourage governments to publish information, enact Freedom of Information Acts, open up their budget and procurement processes," explained Zoellick. He also recognized the imperative of budget transparency in development effectiveness and accountability, asserting "We will not lend directly to finance budgets in countries that do not publish their budgets or, in exceptional cases, at least commit to publish their budgets within twelve months."

There has been a noticeable trend towards improved standards of transparency and accessibility at the World Bank, most recently with the 2009-2010 review and implementation of the institution's information disclosure policy as well as its Open Data Initiative, allowing for public access to the institution's vast storehouse of data and studies. The World Bank's Caroline Anstey, Vice President for External Affairs, noted that it is because of the Open Data Initiative that "over 7,000 data indicators on poverty and development" are now available to the public, free of charge. She continued, "Since July, the public has viewed more than two million pages," and the institution has "published more than 2,700 documents and reports per quarter" as a result of these policies and initiatives.

Access to information is a necessary prerequisite to citizen empowerment, with the end point being, ideally, accountable development. Speaking on two panels focused on transparency and development effectiveness, Barbara Lee, Manager of the Aid Effectiveness Unit at the World Bank, supported the call for transparent data around aid flows and noted that "public access approves accountability." She referenced the World Bank's revised policy on access to information and explained that the institution has "gone from a hush-hush place to an era of openness" as a result of the adoption of such policies and standards. Lee explained, "The World Bank was built to interact with states and governments, not citizens, but we're changing."

Lee declared that "everyone who has access to a computer can hold the World Bank accountable," as a result of the Bank's Open Data Initiative and revised information disclosure policy. While such movements towards openness at the institution are certainly commendable, one might ask what tools are in place to ensure that project-affected peoples, those who are the recipients of World Bank funds who most likely do not have access to a computer, might hold the Bank accountable and actively participate in their respective community's or country's development process.

The act of information disclosure isn't the goal in and of itself, though availability of information, presented in a manner that is accessible to local populations is a necessary precondition for citizen engagement. In a panel entitled "Cash and Clarity: Filling in the Blanks Between Aid and Budget Transparency," Paolo De Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the Open Budget Partnership, explained that "the real objectives and real users of this data are the [impacted] citizens and the civil society organizations who are entitled to have detailed, timely, comprehensive information about the aid they receive, [published] in ways that make it easier for them to track incoming aid and to look at the country's budget and see how the public resources are being spent." De Renzio reinforced the notion of information access as a means of holding both governments and donors accountable as well as encouraging participatory development.

Perhaps Vitalice Meja, Director of the Reality of Aid Africa Network, best qualified effective aid as beginning with the empowerment of local communities. Meja explained, "Development cooperation should be judged on the basis of outcomes on the ground...development effectiveness should be about protecting and fulfilling the rights of impoverished and marginalized people...outcomes should lead to social and economic justice and an increased capacity of poor populations to shape policy and practices at the national level."

If effective, informed development is, in fact, the desired endpoint of the World Bank and partner international organizations, they must strive to empower communities and encourage local ownership, fostering a true and equal partnership with civil society. Access to information is just the first stepping stone.