World Bank and IMF launch disclosure reviews

23 April 2009

Civil society groups, painfully aware of information access problems at the World Bank and IMF, hope this year’s reviews of transparency and disclosure will bring radical improvement.

Communities and individuals are often unable to participate in Bank decisions and lack information to hold decision makers accountable.

For example, the Bank’s country programming plans are often not released in draft form. Project appraisals are disclosed only after approval, as are development policy documents – keeping conditionalities secret. Virtually no information is disclosed during project implementation, and translations of key documents are rarely available. Technical assistance and advisory services are often opaque or untraceable. If you want to monitor your government’s positions at the Bank, well, good luck. The Bank’s board operates in virtual secrecy: closed meetings, skeletal minutes, no access to executive director statements.

Bank proposals

In mid-March the Bank kicked off a review of its disclosure policy with the release of an ‘approach paper’, accepting electronic comments through 22 May and planning numerous in-country consultations, though it has failed to provide adequate notice of locations and dates. A draft policy will be released for comments in May/June, with approval as early as July.

The paper articulates four welcome principles as the basis for the new policy: maximum access to information; a limited set of disclosure exceptions; clear information request procedures; and the right to appeal against denial of information. Currently, the Bank considers all documents secret unless they are on a specific list. Under the new approach, the Bank would disclose all information held by the Bank unless it falls within a limited set of disclosure ‘exceptions’.

The paper also proposes to release supervision reports, aide memoires, country portfolio reviews, more evaluation documents, and papers already considered by the board.

Unfortunately some proposed exceptions are broadly drawn, allowing significant categories of documents to remain secret, undermining the ‘maximum access’ principle. Key categories of information, such as board proceedings, draft documents, and third-party information, would be unduly circumscribed. The paper proposes an appeals process for denied requests, but the body would be under management control, not independent.

Some of these proposals reflect norms found in national freedom of information systems and the Global Transparency Initiative’s Transparency Charter for International Financial Institutions. However, the paper leaves a lot of room for discretion and does not provide enough information for a full assessment of the new approach.

IMF next in line

In late March, the IMF initiated a much-delayed review of its transparency policy but it provided little further information on the process. The Fund posted three questionnaires – for civil society, market participants and researchers – with public comment due by end of April.

The IMF’s current policy covers only a portion of information held by the Fund. Few documents are released in draft form, blocking external stakeholder access to decision-making. Disclosing country-related documents, such as Article IV reports, requires explicit member country consent for publication. Secret ‘side letters’ allow for withholding of information in which there may be an abiding public interest. The IMF does not provide process guarantees on handling information requests nor an appeals process for those denied access.

While the IMF’s board releases far more information than the Bank in the form of Public Information Notices, IMF board meetings are closed, and minutes and executive directors’ statements are withheld for 10 years, if not indefinitely.

The IMF did not provide the public with recommendations for changing its transparency policy and does not yet have a plan to release a draft policy for public comment after the comment period. Aside from a briefing during the Bank/Fund spring meetings, the IMF does not plan to conduct consultations. Despite substantial infusions of public money, the IMF continues to stand accused of displaying a cavalier attitude towards stakeholder engagement.