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Participation and Transparency at the World Bank


The World Bank’s primary mission is fighting global poverty. Such an challenge requires the organisation to be open and responsive to communities and other organisations with which it works. The institution has, however, found itself in the firing line of late, with critics citing a lack of transparency in its policies and project implementations. They also cite a failure to include local insights in decision-making that directly affects the poor.

It was within this context that Alnoor Ebrahim, an associate Professor at Harvard Business School, recently appeared before the Committee on Financial Services of the U.S. Congress. His testimony focused on the reform and accountability efforts undertaken at the World Bank over the past fifteen years.

While acknowledging many improvements in accountability at both project and policy level, he outlined 4 key recommendations to strengthen and enforce the primary challenge of the Bank i.e. to reduce global poverty. He noted the implementation of these as crucial for the legitimacy and effectiveness of the World Bank, and necessary to successful development outcomes. The recommendations include:

1). Establishing mandatory minimum standards for public participation, supported by improved staff incentives and performance appraisals

Ebrahim notes that public participation at policy and project level is usually ad-hoc and discretionary. The Bank generally only formalizes or requires it when forced to do so under external pressure. Consequently, he proposes that in order to enhance democratic participatory processes the Bank should develop two sets of mandatory process-based participation standards:

  • A fixed administrative procedure for developing and revising Bank operational policies and strategies (i.e., policy level participation)
  • A set of minimum requirements for public involvement in different types of lending operations (i.e., project level participation)

Such public participation mechanisms, however, are not absent from the Bank’s current operations. There is a wealth of Bank literature on how to implement high-quality, participatory decision-making. Rather, the issue lies with the inconsistent adherence to and reach of such participation policies.

While the Participation and Civic Engagement Group within the Bank focuses on themes of civic engagement and public participation, more formal processes need to be established to promote public involvement in all areas of the Bank’s operations. Participation can help to build public confidence and trust for World Bank policies and projects. Public engagement and the more innovative consultations should form the cornerstone of participation within the bank.

2). Systematically incorporate public participation in decision-making at each stage of its project/policy cycles

The Bank’s existing project/policy cycle already provides a structure for improving participation. There are, however, a number of improvements that can be made to improve the operation effectiveness of such engagements. These include :

  • Ensuring all stages of the project/policy cycle are transparent and information is made available to the public for deliberation before key decisions are made;
  • Requiring adequate budgetary resources to be made available for participation through all stages of decision-making;
  • Ensuring public disclosure of all materials that can help citizens understand board decisions. These include committee minutes and reports, meeting summaries, and draft documents used for deliberation.

While the Bank already consults widely on policy – see an example of the current consultation process for it’s 2010 Environment strategy – it needs to embrace new mechanisms for participation especially among the poorest sections of society. Governor Schwarzenegger’s innovative use of Twitter to solicit budget ideas represents an example of how the public can be consulted easily. New participation activities – such as an upcoming Hackathon – are interesting examples of how the public can engage with the institution to solve major issues in innovative ways. Such innovative experiments should be encouraged as a means of reducing the effort necessary for the public to engage with the Bank.

3). Improve the transparency of its governance and operations, particularly for project-affected people

Ebrahim highlights transparency as the basis for participatory decision-making. It enables people to participate meaningfully in public decision-making by providing them with the information they need to understand, evaluate, and influence the actions of decision-makers. As such, he recommends the Bank’s current review of its information disclosure policy should include the following:

  • A guiding principle of maximum disclosure, in which all information is subject to disclosure unless there is an overriding public interest in keeping it secret;
  • An obligation to publish proactively key documents and categories of information, even in the absence of a specific request;

The model World Bank Policy on Information Disclosure proposed by the Global Transparency Initiative acknowledges the right to access information as a ‘fundamental human right, as well as a cornerstone of effective governance and development’. It provides practical provisions to give effect to this right, including:

  • A commitment to the automatic disclosure of a wide range of information, including to facilitate participation in decision-making.
  • Clear and progressive rules on the processing of requests.
  • A narrow regime of exceptions (constraints) based on a clear risk of harm to protected interests and a public interest override.
  • A broad right to appeal refusals to disclose information to the Inspection Panel, an oversight body which is independent of Bank management.
  • A strong and yet practical set of promotional measures to ensure fulsome implementation of the policy.

Lawrence Lessig has sparked much debate recently, however, on the topic of ‘naked transparency’. While it’s important for the Bank to release information and data (as it does at worldbank.org/data), it should also provide context and tools for making sense of it.

More information on project spending should also me made available – perhaps taking a leaf from the new Recovery.gov site. Enabling the public to easily visualise where funds were being spent, how many jobs these projects are creating and how they help to alleviate poverty, would be an important demonstration of the Bank’s commitment to transparency.

4). Expand and protect political space for democratic and participatory decision-making in national political processes.

Ebrahim recognizes that while it is essential for the Bank to increase participation in its own governance and operations, it’s equally important for it to respect and support local democratic institutions and processes. This implies:

  • Promoting better oversight by national parliaments, who frequently have little information on what the Bank is doing in their countries.
  • In countries in which democratic spaces are limited, the Bank should facilitate the use of more inclusive and democratic domestic decision-making processes.

Promoting concepts such as Participatory Budgeting would be a good example of how the Bank could increase democratic decision making processes in other countries. The Bank has conducted research into various methods of improving civic participation, and should try to faciliate different means of civic empowerment within its projects, especially where such democratic ideals are in such supply.

Reform of disclosure policy

Many of the recommendations presented above are already being embraced by the World Bank. The President of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, mentioned these at its Annual Meeting in Istanbul earlier this month:

To serve the changing global economy, the world needs agile, nimble, competent, and accountable institutions. The World Bank Group will improve its legitimacy, efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability, and further expand its cooperation with the UN, the IMF, the other Multilateral Development Banks, donors, civil society, and foundations which have become increasingly important development actors…

Our efforts include:

Promoting accountability and good governance, including with our global anti-corruption efforts, an improved transparency and disclosure policy…

Earlier this year the Bank completed a consultation on proposed changes to its disclosure policy. The consultation accepted comments online and also held live consultations in 33 countries. The wide range of responses from different countries is impressive and highlights the importance that was attached to the consultation.

The consultation outlined some of the issues with the World Bank’s current disclosure policy:

  • Ambiguous rules for disclosing information
  • Limited information available on project implementation
  • Unclear rules for disclosing country-owned information
  • Cumbersome and costly procedures for disclosing historical information
  • No appeals process

The new approach was to be based on four guiding principles:

  1. Maximum access to information
  2. A clear list of exceptions that is easier to interpret
  3. Clear procedures for processing requests
  4. An appeals mechanism

The results of the consultation are contained in a revised approach paper entitled Toward Greater Transparency Through Access to Information: The World Bank’s Disclosure Policy. The new policy is due to come into effect in July 2010 and represents a paradigm shift from previous policy:

The proposed policy would constitute a radical shift in the Bank’s disclosure paradigm—from a policy that spells out what the Bank may disclose, to one that presumes the Bank will disclose any information in its possession that is not on a list of exceptions.

Unlocking the potential of Aid information

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has recently launched a consultation on ‘how to improve the availability and accessibility of aid information by designing common standards for publication of info about aid’. A series of recommendations are proposed  for the development of a standard for publishing aid information. These include:

  • Aid information should be legally open
  • Aid information should be technically open
  • Aid information should be easily findable

As the Development 2.0 blog notes it also includes a number of recommendations for the World Bank in relation to how it releases data.


With the implementation of Alnoor Ebrahim’s recommendations, the new Transparency policy and the recommendations from the IATI, the World Bank has the opportunity to become a beacon of transparency within the International Financial Institution environment. Its Transparency Scorecard will then be a model with which to benchmark other institutions against.

(Scorecard taken from Toward Greater Transparency: Rethinking The World Bank’s Disclosure Policy – Approach paper).

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