What is the future of access to information at the World Bank?

Ten years into implementation, the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy offers a key entry point for civil society, communities, and the public to learn about the Bank’s projects, operations, and policies. Moving forward, the Bank should rethink how its information can be more community-oriented and how it can continue to broaden access to information.

In 2020, the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy celebrates its 10th birthday. For civil society organizations and communities who are concerned about the potential impacts of development projects on their lives and the environment, access to reliable and timely  information about World Bank activities is critical. The Access to Information Policy represents one of the one of the most important achievements of advocacy targeting international publicly owned institutions such as the World Bank. Through the 2010 Policy, the World Bank effectively acknowledged communities’ rights to information about the development interventions that it supports. This represented a huge step forward in the fight to center communities in the development conversation and to make development a more locally-driven process. Information about projects is a starting point for civil society and communities to be aware of, and engage with,  project plans and affected locations, potential risks and benefits, specific commitments and mitigation plans, and project implementation status and results.

The Bank’s Access to Information Policy, which became effective July 1, 2010, mandates public access to all Bank-produced documentation, as long as the information in the documents does not fall under a number of exceptions. The 2010 Policy represented a step forward from the Bank’s previous Disclosure Policy, which limited public access to documents to only those on a specific list. The 2010 Policy also introduced an appeals process so that if a request for information was denied, requestors could appeal the denial if they believed it violated the terms of the Policy, or on a public interest basis.

Ten years later, the Access to Information Policy is still a key access point for civil society and communities. However, implementation has revealed a number of weaknesses, not just in the policy itself but in the types of information that are developed and disclosed by the Bank. Over the next ten years, we will advocate for a renewed focus on making the Bank’s information more accessible and useful for their true clients — the community stakeholders of Bank-funded projects. We look at some of the gaps in available and actionable information, and how the Bank can adapt its practices to make information work for these stakeholders. The gaps include:

1. Language. Project documents are produced and disclosed in the languages used by the Bank and/or its client, the borrowing country government, but are not always made available in the languages of the people and communities who stand to benefit from, or face negative impacts as a result of, these projects. The Bank’s Environmental and Social Framework does require that information about project risks and benefits be made available to project stakeholders in a language and manner that is understandable to them, but this does not extend to requiring full access to all available information. This creates a gap that puts communities at a disadvantage as it means they may lack access to the same information as their governments and other powerful actors.

2. Accessibility. Increasingly, the World Bank has made efforts to include persons with disabilities in project design and implementation so that they are not left out of project benefits or disproportionately face negative impacts of projects. It is critical that the Bank makes project information available not only in a language that is understandable to project stakeholders, but also in an accessible format. This includes documents that are accessible to screen readers and sign language interpretation for consultations when needed. Publishing easy-to-read versions of key project documents can make project information accessible to more stakeholders by removing jargon, complex phrasing, and technical terminology.

3. Usability. The standard disclosure package for each project includes documents that are routinely uploaded on the Bank’s dedicated project page and the documents website. Not all project-related documents are part of this package however, and many of the included documents are lengthy, technical, or do not contain the clear and actionable information that communities and project stakeholders need. The Bank should add documents such as the Operational Manual, which offer project stakeholders more detailed information about project location and implementation plans, to the disclosure package to enable communities to monitor project implementation and hold implementers to their commitments. Meanwhile, the Bank should adapt other documents such as the Implementation and Status Report to reflect more of the information that communities and project stakeholders look for about project implementation, such as the locations of the project and updates on E&S impact mitigation and risk management measures, rather than focusing almost entirely on progress toward development outcome indicators used to measure performance.

4. Policy interpretation. A major critique of the Bank’s policy focuses on the interpretation of exceptions to disclosure, particularly when it comes to the exceptions for deliberative documents and for information provided by third parties. While these exceptions often are important to protect confidential and sensitive information, they can also be politicized to shield governments from sharing information of public concern with their populations. To balance between the necessary intention of the policy exceptions and the ultimate aim of information transparency and access, experts have proposed implementing a redaction protocol for documents so that disclosure is not determined based on an “all or nothing” approach. While this may require additional resources, it could be the next step forward in progress towards increased transparency and accountability.

At ten years, the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy continues to stand as a critical tool for engagement and accountability for civil society and communities. The World Bank must address the gaps described above if it hopes to continue to be a leader in the field of transparency.

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