The World Bank has agreed to meet with the global access to information community early in 2017 to discuss civil society concerns over recent activities in the bank suggesting that it no longer placed any priority on the adoption and implementation of access to information frameworks.
Ms Deborah Wetzel, Senior Director of Global Practices at the World Bank headquarters, made the pledge at a session held during a Civil Society Policy Forum organized by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from October 4 to 7, 2016 in Washington DC, ahead of their 2016 Annual Meetings. The session was titled “The Role of the World Bank in Advancing Citizens’ Access to Information in the Context of the Bank’s Reforms”.
Moderated by Mr. Janmejay Singh, Senior Strategy and Operations Officer at the Bank, the session also had as speakers Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA); and Mr. Toby McIntosh, Director of Editorial Quality Review at the Washington-based Bureau of National Affairs’ “Daily Report for Executives” and Steering Committee Coordinator of the Global Transparency Initiative (GTI).
In his presentation, Mr. Ojo, representing the Working Group of the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), noted that the recent development in the Bank whereby all its staff members working on access to information were let go, suggested that access to information was no longer a priority issue for the Bank.
He expressed concern that the development could send a wrong signal to political leaders in developing countries, especially in Africa, with the risk of a severe reversal of all the gains and progress that had been made over the last decade or so towards ensuring the right to information for citizens in many countries.
Mr. Ojo noted that in Africa, “it is not part of the natural reflex of those in authority to create or sustain mechanisms that enable ordinary people to hold them up for scrutiny or to hold them accountable,” adding that “these leaders often have to be persuaded, cajoled, even compelled to recognize the importance of such mechanisms and to institute them.”
He said having the World Bank and other multilateral or bi-lateral institutions lend their powerful voices to the issue was an important leverage for citizens in many countries trying to convince their governments to be transparent and accountable.
Mr. Ojo argued that the engagement on the issue by the World Bank and other multilateral and bilateral institutions has led in a large measure to the dramatic increase in the adoption of access to information laws in Africa from just four countries about a decade ago to about 21 countries in 2016, in addition to several other regional instruments that have also been adopted on the continent to promote or facilitate citizens’ access to information.
He stressed that access to information laws have enabled citizens to participate in governance in many countries, despite the challenges of implementation, as they have given citizens a tool to engage their governments and are making significant impact in advancing other goals such as open contracting and resource transparency.
Acknowledging that a handful of expert staff at the World Bank office in Washington is not nearly enough to respond effectively to a global need, Mr. Ojo said: “it seems to me that a more pertinent conversation and natural reaction would have been how do we strengthen the Bank’s capacity to continue to address this governance challenge and need, rather than eliminating it.”
Observing that the Bank has continued to promote the idea of transparency and accountability as well as citizen participation as underpinning its priorities, he said “one tool for delivering transparency, accountability and citizen participation is an effective access to information framework”. He insisted that “no one, not even the Bank, contests this.”
In addition, Mr. Ojo said, the adoption of Target 16.10 by world leaders within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) only serves to reaffirm what is already known.
But he wondered: “Given what is in effect a global consensus on the critical importance of access to information to good governance, in ensuring sustainable development and ending extreme poverty, what has informed this apparently illogical move on the part of the Bank, which could really trigger a reversal of the gains made over the last few years.”
Mr. Ojo stressed that although the World Bank says it remains completely committed to access to information, its body language is giving the access to information community in Africa serious cause for concern.
He said as part of the community’s engagement with the World Bank on the issue and in response to the Bank’s insistence that it remained committed to access to information, the African Platform on Access to Information had requested the Bank to share with advocates its new access to information strategy in the light of the recent developments.
Mr. Ojo added that the APAI Working Group had also requested a meeting with senior bank officials to obtain clarity on the issues and discuss the Bank’s access to information agenda and that although the requests were made in June 2016, APAI had received no response.
Responding to the concerns raised, Ms Wetzel said the bank’s access to information projects and programmes would henceforth be handled by Bank staff in regional and country offices.
She explained that the Bank did not have a specific strategy for its access to information work as it could not develop separate strategy documents for each of its areas of work.
Ms Wetzel also explained that the Bank had faced significant budget cuts in 2016, adding that despite this it had managed to have about 46 active projects that have access to information components.
On the need to have a discussion to clarify areas of confusion, she said: “What I can commit to is, come early in the next calendar year, so January, February, March of 2017, we would be happy to sit down with the ATI community and share where we are and have a discussion of how ATI fits into the set of activities we are doing and hear from you your perspective on does this meet the needs that you think are out there for the role the Bank can play. One of the difficulties that I face as the head of this practice is we can’t be all things to all people, so the question is how can we be what’s needed for the right issue for the right moment, to really make that critical difference.”