Letter of Protest Regarding Access to Information in the World Bank

James D.Wolfensohn,
The World Bank
February 9, 2001

Cc: Disclosure Policy
Room U 11-003

1818 H Street
Washington, D.C. 20433

Dear Mr Wolfensohn,

The International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest organization of journalists representing more than 450,000 members in over 100 countries, is dismayed that the World Bank is unwilling to allow greater disclosure and public access to World Bank documents.

Our common cause is a professional commitment to public knowledge. We believe openness in the processes of decision-making strengthens institutions and societies and is a bulwark against corruption and mismanagement. It is the fundamental right of all citizens to have access to public information.

While we welcome the strides made by the World Bank towards greater transparency, we note that the draft Policy on Information Disclosure now under consideration makes only modest additional steps. Some changes are to be applauded, for example, the release of more evaluative documents. However, the draft policy falls short in many other respects.

The draft policy would keep hidden from public view many vital documents that explain Bank policies. Without the release of these documents, journalists cannot adequately fulfill their responsibilities to inquire and to subject public bodies to scrutiny.

Important materials will remain secret unless the draft disclosure policy is broadened. Specifically, when the Bank makes structural adjustment loans, with specific prescriptions for change, the terms are spelled out in documents such as the President's Report and Tranche Release Memorandum.

However, the Bank does not release these documents, nor does it propose to do so. Instead, disclosure of these critical documents will remain at the whim of borrowing governments, allowing many governments to shield these documents from public view. Disclosure will be subject to political expediency rather than the public right to know.

On occasion it remains unclear whether the impetus to withhold information comes from borrowing governments or if it is the result of pressure applied by the Bank.

Similarly, the Bank's proposed policy would not mandate the release of all Country Assistance Strategies, one of the broadest policy-setting documents. Nor would the Bank allow for the release of draft project appraisal documents, which are the key evaluative assessments of projects.

While some improvements are suggested regarding disclosure of evaluative documents, the findings of the Bank's Quality Assurance Group and the Quality and Compliance Unit would never see the light of day, yet they should. These documents, and any pertaining to relevant follow-up, serve an important role in the Bank's ability to hold itself accountable, to measure and learn from its mistakes, to capitalize on its successes, and to demonstrate this to journalists and stakeholders alike.

Regarding archived materials, the Bank should disclose materials after five years, not after 20 years, as proposed.

Finally, the Bank's Board of Executive Directors should commit themselves to releasing minutes of its meetings or the summaries of board discussions. Such an approach should be a basic tenet of good governance.

Taken as a whole, the draft proposal's shortcomings are particularly unfortunate because the Bank often extols the virtues of transparency when attempting to encourage principles of good governance. There is no place for unnecessary secrecy in Government and the World Bank should be setting standards that others will follow.

The bank has long supported "a presumption" in favor of disclosure. Now, as the bank considers revisions to its disclosure policy, it should make this presumption a reality. The Bank should ensure that all staff and project officials are fully apprised of, and act in accordance with the principle that the first rule is in favour of openness, not secrecy.

The International Federation of Journalists applauds the efforts of the World Bank to promote principles of good governance but we urge you most strongly to apply models of transparency in your own affairs. Above all, the challenge is to discourage secrecy and to promote informed debate.

With kind regards,

General Secretary