IDB Policy Review Overlooks the Most Important Barrier to Access to Information

Access to Information Policy update should start with more open access to review process

 In November 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) announced that the Bank was updating its current Access to Information Policy. As part of the process, the Bank released an initial Policy Profile for public comment, which sets out the main “gaps” to be addressed during the policy review.  Consultation with external stakeholders on this document has been very limited; the IDB only organized one in-person meeting, in Washington, DC, to consult on the document. The Bank plans to hold a second round of consultation meetings in February and March to discuss a draft of a new policy, which includes in-person consultations in the Latin America region, but these meetings will be by invitation only.

 This proposed process fails to incorporate views of stakeholders from the Latin America region, consistent with established stakeholder engagement practices for multilateral development banks (MDBs). Consultations for policy reviews should incorporate outreach to stakeholders that is diverse, proactive, and includes all interested civil society organizations, indigenous groups, and people affected by IDB projects (particularly those requesting help from the IDB’s Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism, known by its Spanish acronym, MICI). Yet the IDB did not seek out views from these key stakeholders on the “gaps” in IDB’s current Policy on Access to Information. Further, the IDB’s plans to engage these stakeholders during the second round of consultations are not clear. Who will participate in the in-person meetings? What are the criteria used for participation? How will the Bank ensure it reaches out and facilitates the participation of those potentially affected or interested in the process? As the Policy Profile itself notes, “the quality of any policy is conditioned on its effective implementation;” IDB should use this opportunity to demonstrate it here.

Accountability and transparency: Principles to promote genuine changes or hollow commitments?

The IDB states that the objective of this policy update is to reaffirm the Bank’s “commitment to transparency, enhance the effectiveness of IDB operations and strengthen governance and accountability at the IDB” by incorporating new disclosure standards and best practices adopted by other MDBs, while also making information disclosure more proactive and predictable. However, the Policy Profile falls short by failing to identify one of the biggest gaps in IDB’s current Access to Information Policy: the exception for “country-specific information.” No other MDB has this exception in its Access to Information Policy, as is acknowledged in Annex 1 of the Policy Profile.

In 2013, the Office of Evaluation and Oversight (OVE) at the IDB published an assessment of the implementation of the Access to Information Policy. OVE concluded that the ability for IDB member countries to object to the disclosure of country-specific information is “inconsistent with the core principle of transparency” as it is a “broadly written exception to disclosure of country-specific information to which a country objects.” OVE also highlights that countries’ use of this specific exception suggests that this provision could “completely undermine the access to information reform endeavor” at IDB. OVE also states that “the open-endedness of the exception allows countries to object to the publication of virtually any country-specific information, including, for example, a project proposal.”

Even the Policy Profile itself acknowledges that countries have used the exception to object to the publication of key documents like country strategies and project documents. These documents are publicly disclosed by the World Bank and other MDBs, and are key opportunities for civil society and other stakeholders to influence development projects and programs in their countries. One of the major changes that should be made to the current policy is to eliminate the exception for “country-specific information,” as it clearly undermines the commitments to transparency, good governance, predictability, and accountability that the Bank intends to reaffirm by updating the Access to Information Policy.

The missing link to the Environmental and Social Policy Framework

The IDB is reviewing the Access to Information Policy and the Environmental and Social Policy Framework (ESPF) almost in parallel. Both policies represent two sides of the same coin—neither of them can work effectively without the other. Both are core policies required for activities that IDB finances, in order to prevent harm, set high international social and environmental standards, and ensure transparency, and participation from project-affected people, and accountability. The Bank needs to clarify how both policies will work together to ensure all aspects of project information disclosure are addressed and to ensure informed participation of stakeholders.

Read the joint submission on the draft Policy Profile from BIC, International Accountability Project (IAP), Accountability Counsel, and Fundacion para el Desarrollo de Politicas Sustentables (FUNDEPS), which provides more detail on our recommendations for improving the new Policy and aligning it with the practices of other MDBs.

A shallow exercise or meaningfully improving IDB’s transparency and accountability?

If IDB does not use this opportunity to align the Access to Information Policy to the best standards and practices already implemented by its peers, this review will be another shallow exercise that is unlikely to prompt real institutional change. The IDB should ensure that the principles of accountability, transparency, and participation are the fundamental cornerstones guiding its policies, and the activities and operations that the Bank finances.