The new access to information policy at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector arm, has been criticised for being weaker than its public sector counterpart, and for allowing sweeping exceptions.
The new policy, released in August despite being agreed in April, will come into force in January next year and is part of the IFC’s sustainability framework (see Update 77). Though claiming to “align with” the public sector parts of the Bank’s 2010 policy (see Update 68) the IFC’s policy is far more tightly drawn. While the basic framework is of a “presumption in favour of disclosure” of all documents, except those on a lengthy and “not exhaustive” exclusion list, a “compelling reason” can override this presumption. In this case, “the IFC considers whether the disclosure of information is likely to cause harm to specific parties or interests that outweighs the benefit” – introducing significant leeway.
Perhaps the biggest loophole in the new policy, however, appears to be related to “commercially sensitive and confidential information”, where a blanket ban is included on disclosing “financial, business, proprietary or other non-public information about its clients, its member countries or other third parties.” This ban also extends to legal documentation or correspondence, and “board documents or papers relating to specific investments or advisory service projects or platforms.”
This sweeping exception to the policy has angered the civil society groups who produced the Transparency charter for international financial institutions (see Update 47) based on nationally accepted norms. Toby McIntosh of the steering committee of NGO network the Global Transparency Initiative said: “it’s widely accepted that exceptions should only be based on the harm that might be caused by disclosure, not on who produced or provided the information. By allowing a blanket veto to third parties, the IFC risks riding roughshod over accepted norms, and potentially making its access to information policy meaningless.”
Too little, too late?
Also included on the list of exceptions is “deliberative information” – designed to maintain the confidential nature of discussions within the IFC and with clients before decisions are made. It also means that affected people and other stakeholders are likely to continue to be excluded from access to information until projects have already been designed. The scope of this exception includes denying public access to “studies, reports, audits, assessments or analyses prepared to inform [the] IFC’s internal decision-making”. Mariana Gonzalez of Mexican NGO Fundar said, “it’s no use if affected communities only have access to information after a decision has already been made – this undermines their basic rights, and means that any potential damage may be impossible to avoid.” Other items on the list of exceptions include those normally exempted such as personal information, information that if released would break attorney client privilege and that relating to personal security and safety.
In addition to more clearly spelling out the limited information to be contained in the IFC’s “summary of investment information”, the new policy promises to, for the first time, “provide periodic updates on the investment” – though exactly what this will entail is not spelled out.
For those whose requests for information are turned down, a right of appeal is introduced, initially to an internally appointed advisor. Should a complainant wish to appeal the advisor’s decision, they will be able to take it to a new independent Information Appeals Panel, but, unlike at the public sector parts of the Bank, where the independent appeals board reviews the whole basis of the appeal, the remit of the IFC’s second stage appeals panel is limited to deciding if the internal advisor “had a reasonable basis for his or her” decision to deny access. Furthermore, unlike for the public sector parts of the Bank, appeals cannot be based on public interest grounds.
In May the Bank became the third donor to publish its data in the International Aid Transparency (IATI) standard. This follows last year’s decision to open up more of the Bank’s data for public use – the ‘open data initiative’ – which has led, according to the Bank to a tripling in usage of its datasets. However in September a coalition of over 90 civil society organisations and individuals, including Civicus and the International Accountability Project wrote to the Bank president asking for this move to greater openness to extend to the hundreds of internal talks and workshops that take place at the Bank each year. Currently the Bank’s B-SPAN webcasting service only covers a limited number of big ticket talks.