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Lights and shadows
By Milagros Belgrano Rawson

Editor's Note: Does the IDB’s new information disclosure policy meet its stated goals? One way to answer that question is to see if the new policy has made it any easier for people to get answers to their questions about IDB projects. To find out, IDBAmérica asked free-lance journalist Milagros Belgrano Rawson to pick a project at random and then see how much she could learn about it by using the Bank’s official information channels. Since our purpose was to test the Bank’s information policy, and not to draw attention to a particular country, we have replaced all the names and figures in the following report with fictitious ones. See links at right for a response to Belgrano's assessment ("A chance to see how we're doing") and an on-line reader survey.

I chose the project “Programa de Reforma de la Salud” (Healthcare Reform Program, or “PRS,” its abbreviation in Spanish), which is currently being implemented with a US$65 million loan from the IDB. First I examined the information available about the project on the IDB’s website. In the “Projects” section I found a page on PRS explaining that its objective is to increase coverage through organizational reform and reform in health-services financing. The PRS focuses on the poorest populations and provides medicine free of charge.

The project page also gave the loan number and approval date, as well as the total amount disbursed for the project to date (52 per cent), the name of the IDB project specialist and the executing agency in the beneficiary country. However, there were no telephone numbers or contact names. I sent an e-mail to a press officer at IDB headquarters asking for clarification on the amounts of the loan, but I got no reply.

At the bottom of the project page I found 11 links to additional documents. The longest (53 pages) was the original loan proposal, which includes a detailed analysis of the problems in the country’s health sector. Seven of the links led to procurement plans or notices related to the project.

Purchases and consulting. A link entitled “Procurement Information” turned out to be more productive, leading to a database with an impressive amount of information on the financial performance of all active IDB projects. Under the “Contracts Awarded” section of the PRS page, I found that 87 goods and works contracts have been awarded under that program, along with 315 consulting contracts. Each of these led to a page with the name of the business or consultant, the amount of the contract and the term in which it must be executed.

These pages also have sections headed “Major Service” and “Minor Service,” which supposedly explain the type of good or service being provided. But in almost all cases, these sections offered two or three words (typically “government” or “technical assistance”) that shed little light on actual boods and services procured. This makes it impossible to figure out what tasks would be performed by organizations like the “Sindicato de Madres” (“Mothers Union”), which appears on the list of contracts awarded. Nor was it clear whether any of the 315 consultants retained for the project worked on “human resources training and education,” “information systems,” “information dissemination or institutional strengthening,” or other headings mentioned in the General Procurement Notice on the project page. I requested more detailed information from the Bank’s Public Information Center, which only after several e-mails answered that all the procurement information it had was listed on the website.

One striking discovery, for example, was that the list of consultants shows Gladys Arroyos, general coordinator of the project’s Central Executing Unit, as a consultant receiving two honoraria for US$6,231 and US$48,212, respectively. The same list shows that International Financing Unit head Rafael Peñaloza received US$53,921 for his services as a project consultant, while Contracts and Procurement Coordinator Aníbal de la Torre received US$49,896, and Arroyos’s secretary, Mariela Gómez, received US$4,525. It was not clear whether these people are on the staff of Ministry of Health and receive consultants fees as well, or if they are on these lists for other reasons.

With these questions in mind, we turned to the Bank’s Procurement Policy and Coordination Office, which oversees compliance with the Bank’s policies and procedures for acquiring consulting services, goods and works. We received no answer and turned once again to the Bank’s Country Office in the borrowing country, whose only suggestion was to contact the project’s Executing Unit in the Ministry of Health. But at the Ministry of Health, my emails and telephone calls to Arroyos, Peñaloza, de la Torre and Gómez were not answered.

All this makes it difficult to determine the PRS program’s benefits for the country. The IDB’s Evaluation Office, which is charged with assessing project results, does not have performance reports for the PRS loan, despite a May 2003 IDB report that warned of “scant evaluation of the impact and lack of feedback during the Bank’s project cycle.”

The information gap is particularly worrisome given that the country’s public health system is in a state of collapse, and that in recent years various Ministry of Health officials have been accused of irregularities by national oversight agencies. For instance, Ignacio Ramírez, a physician and president of the National Medical Association, says that government medical reform channeled through the PRS “simply feeds administrative structures and parasitic consultants,” but his claims are difficult to rebut given the lack of information on project results. 

Shedding some light. Though many of my requests for information did not receive a response from the IDB departments or offices that I contacted, I do not believe that this was due to an unwillingness by Bank staff to abide by their own disclosure policies. The problem is that these departments did not appear to have current information about their projects, which meant they could not respond to requests for information.

I think that the IDB’s website is an essential tool for providing the public with access to information about the Bank. So I was puzzled to find that the staff directory includes telephone numbers but not email addresses, a fact that made it considerably harder to reach several departments. We asked the IDB’s webmaster and the Public Information Center for the e-mail addresses, but did not get a satisfactory response.

The cornerstone of any modern information access policy should be a prompt reply to email queries, even when the department or office

 receiving the message does not have the documents required. During the course of this evaluation, we received responses to only 12 of the 25 emails sent to Bank offices and departments, a response rate of 48 percent. And this figure includes departments that replied only to say that they did not have an answer to the query.

“Governments should not question why people are asking for information,” former deputy prime minister of Sweden Lena Hjelm-Wallen said a few months ago. Access to public information is increasingly being recognized as a citizen right, and it should not be tied to the interests of government officials, she noted. In this regard, the IDB and some Latin American governments still have considerable ground to cover.