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Ebenezer Hanson

The World Bank over the last 15 years has been moving towards a policy of greater transparency by making more information available to stakeholders.

The Executive Directors and the Bank Management have periodically reviewed the policy and expanded its scope: for example, in 1993, 2001 and 2005 the Board approved proposals to allow public access to additional documents. The result has been a fairly wide-reaching disclosure policy. It is in this spirit that the Bank in 2009 is rethinking its disclosure policy.

Last week the Bank, as part of a global consultation process, organized a forum in Accra to seek the views on the proposed policy revision from a wide range of stakeholders including civil society organizations, academia and the media, among others. In an approach paper, "Toward Greater Transparency: Rethinking the World Bank's Disclosure Policy", which formed the basis for the deliberations at the forum, the Bank acknowledges the limitations of the existing so-called "positive list", hence its decision to dispense with it.

The "positive list" outlines the categories of information that are normally available to the public, subject to certain "constraints". The approach paper notes, "Even though the policy contains provisions for considering the disclosure of information that is not listed, the existence of such "positive list" creates the perception that there is a presumption against the disclosure of information that is not on that list."

Ms. Shakuntala V. Gunaratne of the World Bank explains that although the Bank is doing away with the "positive list", it will maintain a clear list of "exceptions" that is easier to interprete and implement. "The Bank would deny access to information for which there is a compelling reason for confidentiality- for example, personal information about staff; confidential or sensitive information given to the Bank by member countries and the other third parties with the express understanding that such information would not be disclosed; security information; or information that is subject to attorney- client privilege."

However, it is the lack of explicit principles defining what should be categorized as confidential or strictly confidential that has become the source of dissent. Speaking on "The Nexus between World Bank Disclosure Policy and Freedom of Information" at the forum, a member of the Coalition on Freedom of Information, Mr. Sheshe Akoto-Ampaw, feared that the non- publication of the principles could be fertile grounds for arbitrariness on the part of officials tasked with the release of information. "The Bank should spell out the principles else they will become tools for arbitrariness", he insisted. He adds that, "All stakeholders should assist the Bank so that the rules applicable to non-disclosure will not undermine or subvert the very goals the Bank is seeking to achieve with the new policy."

Mr. Akoto-Ampaw also disagreed with the proposal that certain country-owned information would be treated confidential. "Is it because the country owns the information then it becomes confidential or there will be rules governing it?" he asked. His divergent stance is conceived in the idea that "information owned by government is owned on behalf of the citizens and since governments are accountable to the people, the information must be made known to the people." He was also uncomfortable with certain historical information which will be exempted at all times describing it as "problematic".

While welcoming the establishment of an appeal mechanism with the power to review a previous decision refusing a request for a piece of information, he was concerned with the composition of the appeal committee.





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