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An opportunity to see how we’re doing

By John Ferriter

I’d like to thank Milagros Belgrano Rawson for the research she conducted for her article in this issue of IDBAmérica, and for her analysis of IDB’s information disclosure policies.

For the past decade, the IDB has been striving to make its activities more transparent. Much of this work has involved refinements in the Bank’s public information “systems,” with numerous departments working to ensure that information about the IDB is made available in a useful, timely and substantive way. Throughout this process, IDB management and representatives of the Bank’s member countries have tried to find the right balance between the legitimate need for confidentiality and the public’s right to know about taxpayer-financed projects.

The IDB’s first information disclosure policy was approved by the Board of Executive Directors in 1994. The latest version, approved in 2003, opened the door to a vast body of financial and operational information that had not previously been available to the general public.  Notably, we were the first multilateral development bank to provide minutes of the meetings of the Board of Executive Directors. In 2006, we hope to start releasing reports on the status of all projects in execution—a crucial information resource for anyone interested in assessing the impact and efficiency of the Bank’s operations.

While we are proud of the information disclosure policy, it hasn’t always been easy to tell if the public has noticed the difference. Since journalists are important consumers of the IDB’s communications products, and since they play a vital role in filtering information and disseminating it to mass audiences, we thought it made sense to ask a journalist to “test drive” our new policies.  

The author’s account of an attempt to learn everything she could about a single health project shows that the IDB has indeed become a more open institution. It confirms that the Bank is now a leader when it comes to disclosing financial and procurement information about its projects. The ease with which she obtained specific and up-to-date data on loan disbursement levels, contracts and even individual consulting contracts indicates that the IDB is now far ahead of many public and even private institutions in this respect.

However, the author’s requests for clarification of some of the terminology in the documents she consulted did not receive prompt replies. In some instances she received no reply at all. This is not acceptable, and we will take immediate steps to improve performance in this area.

The author’s research took her beyond the realm of information controlled by the IDB. Her unsuccessful attempts to reach officials in the Ministry of Health and the project’s executing agency are an example of why the IDB is working with borrowing member countries to make public finances and national procurement systems more transparent. (See link at right for information about IDB projects involving electronic government procurement, or “e-GP.”)

Indeed, given that it is the borrowing country government—not the IDB—that ultimately “owns” a project financed by the Bank, there is a limit to the information we can provide. The IDB’s information disclosure policies reveal important parts of the picture of a Bank-financed project, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the borrowing country governments who actually carry out the work and repay the loan.

The author is right in noting that although particular departments within the IDB may be willing to share information, they can’t always obtain it quickly. The Bank has more than 1,300 employees stationed in Washington and another 500 in its 26 country offices, Paris and Tokyo. Today, in coordination with thousands of government institutions and executing agencies, the IDB oversees some 664 projects that involve $37 billion worth of loans and grants in execution. The volume of information produced by these activities is staggering. It can be a full-time job to keep track of records generated by a single large project—to say nothing of answering questions from people outside the Bank.
In a few instances, the author does not appear to have found key resources that are available on the IDB web site. We publish a telephone directory that includes the entire staff of the Bank, for example (see link at right). We also publish the names of the members of all our project teams (for projects in preparation as well as those already approved).  We believe that this makes for a degree of accountability that would be hard to find in many other financial institutions, public or private.

In sum, the author’s report suggests that comprehensive websites and an ambitious disclosure policy are not sufficient, on their own, to guarantee transparency. Only a sincere commitment to openness, facilitated by timely communication with real human beings, can get the job done. We can and will do better, and we will continue to seek feedback (see link at right to a interactive opinion survey concerning the IDB's information policies).

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