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World Bank Moves Towards Greater Transparency: Isabel Guerrero Discusses New Access to Information Policy

© Civil Society News, New Delhi
(April 2010. Reprinted with permission)

Original Article (pdf)

Beginning 1 July, details of projects, minutes of board meetings and a whole lot else will be made public under a disclosure policy.

“India’s right to information law is an inspiration for us,” says Isabel Guerrero, the Bank’s Vice-President for South Asia and one of the architects of the disclosure policy.

The policy itself is new, but the process has been on, with voices like Guerrero’s within the Bank pressing hard for transparency in keeping with the times. Guerrero believes that by being accessible it is possible to end the mistrust and suspicion that the World Bank attracts from activists and communities affected by projects financed by the bank.

But in so many ways, a policy is just a beginning. Within the Bank itself, staffers have to feel easy about taking contrary positions and owning them. To sponsor this change, the “deliberative process” within the Bank will initially remain outside the purview of the disclosure policy.

Guerrero explains this by saying that it is important have the “time and space” for handling difficult questions and helping people in the Bank evolve to a different threshold of interaction and candour. Guerrero spoke at some length to Civil Society at her apartment in Vasant Vihar in New Delhi. Excerpts from that conversation:

What has prompted the World Bank to specifically define a new policy on openness and transparency? Has this come out of a trend within the bank?

Well, this goes back to the 1980s when we started with the disclosure policy. The Bank was secretive before that and there was a lot of pressure from civil society for openness. We started to disclose things little by little. Over the years when we started to look at this with new eyes we realised that more than a disclosure policy what was needed was to provide access to information. Meanwhile, a lot of countries had begun to evolve right to information policies. India has a good right to information law. Mexico is one example, the US was one of the first. What I have seen in Mexico can be really transformational. To open up is a very healthy thing for any institution. It makes us more accountable, and people get to see how we operate inside, including people who are affected by our projects.

Are you saying it’s a push both from inside and outside?

It’s a changing world, no? For me this has been one of the best developments. I am very happy. You know there are 185 countries which are in the board of the Bank and there might be some countries which feel this is too much. So there has been the politics of the Bank to work through. But a big majority in the Bank is very happy with it.

How have governments reacted?

Well different governments have taken it differently. Earlier you know, the project appraisal part, the famous part, would go to the board, be disclosed and then we would not know anything till the project was at completion stage, till it was...finished,

Now everything is being made public – all the aide memoirs, the restructuring of the project, the implementation of the project. for some countries that is a lot, given that some countries are not as open as others. But I do know that at the board discussions there was a consensus. It was decided to go ahead, including disclosure of minutes of board discussions. After July, it will be public which governments oppose what.

So, minutes of board meetings will be available on websites?

Yes.

What is all the information you will now disclose?

As of now we have a positive list of what is disclosed. From 1 July we will only have a negative list of what will not be disclosed. So everything will be disclosed except for a list of a few things which will remain confidential. After a period of time say five years, 10 years, as in the US, even those will be made available.

How long really is the list of exceptions?

I am happy with the exceptions. Exceptions have to do with things like personal e-mails of staff, protecting the debate within the Bank before reaching a conclusion on project design and things like that. Also under exceptions are investigations into corruption, which is right because people are not regarded as corrupt till the investigations are over, if they are at all to blame that is. Then there are the internal financials of the bank which need to be kept confidential. Those are the three categories.

How exactly are you going to address the deliberative process?

Oh, could you enlighten us! You have been implementing it. We haven’t so we need to learn as we go. We don’t have everything sorted out and we have had consultations in 23 countries for a year now. We are learning and we will continue to learn. We have the launch on 1 July and that will not be the end of learning. (As for) the deliberative process per se, the reason I am happy this has been kept confidential is because in the bank we need to promote a culture of honesty and we don’t always have that. People tend to think that the project has been taken care of. I don’t think this is the right culture for the Bank. We should be much more upfront about the risks and that some of those risks are not managed. I will be promoting in my region a culture of real open debate.

But development is a messy business, it is really complex, many things go wrong and I think it is necessary that we have time and space for the difficult questions.

Any specific things you would like to mention about the deliberative process which you have debated within the bank and decided to put this away for the time being?

Yes, one of the things we debate a lot is our energy policy. Should we be investing in coal? Should we be investing in large hydro-power projects from the experience which we have had? All these are really complex questions for which we do not have an answer right now. And then there are many political groups which have different views and want to push us one way or another. I just think we need the space to do the right thing. And to do that a lot of real debate/deliberation is needed before we get there. We cannot do it openly because there are so many interests out there.

Information which will be made public includes project design, the project appraisal document, board discussions, supervision reviews in the mid-life of the project. The supervision review which calls for management attention will be left out since these are recommendations which we don’t know if the management will accept. But eventually in the next supervision mission what they recommend will be made public.

While the entire deliberative process may not be completely open at this stage we are trying to make more documents at different stages of the project available (implementation, appraisal, project concepts, design will also be public)..for anyone keen to follow on the process, they will have more documents to understand how the project moved from one stage to the other. While all the views may not be captured that way but progress from one document to the other will be public.

How are people going to access this information?

The most important part is dissemination which is why I am having an interview with you because I really want people to know that this is going to be available from 1 July. We are going to start going out with this information in June. Our information centres will be accessible and we will give some support to libraries across the country. I am going to be doing a lot of interviews across South Asia.

If a guy on the street wants to know how is he going to access this information?

That will be through the website or the public information centre here in New Delhi. I was in Mexico when the RTI Act was done there. We gave a grant to the commissioners who were actually implementing this and provided them technical assistance which was a real key to the success of RTI. We also have to do that.

But you do have a multiplicity of stakeholders...There are so many languages, so many tiers, you are really reaching out to the last man,, to the poor... How do you cope with this?

India is vast and it is challenging in terms of reaching out to everybody. First of all I think we should learn from the experience of RTI here.

How did the RTI here cope with this exact problem you are talking about?

On the translations we are actually working right now how we will handle the translations and that is a big challenge. We don’t have the answer as yet but we are going to be seeing how to work on that. There is a time lag of action. For instance, training people in the communications teams so that they go out is part of the time lag. So I don’t want to give you the impression that we have everything sorted out. We don’t but I think as we go, we will have to work it.

Would you be using civil society groups to do this?

Yes, we already have in the consultations.

Do you think there will be an overload?

I don’t think we are that interesting. What is of concern to me is that staff should have the ability to respond to requests. People are so busy with projects that when you give a request they don’t answer in good time. And that’s why it is really important for us to develop standards in quick response so that people have to reply within a certain time.

If someone is not satisfied with the information asked for, then do you have a grievance redressal system in place?

There is a two- stage appeal process. One is internal and the second stage, if the person is still unhappy, is a panel which has three external members, a sort of ombudsman.


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