By Douglas Gillison
If only Hillary Clinton had been president of the World Bank and not chief of US diplomacy.
The former Secretary of State now says she wants the world to see her emails. This, to fend off a new controversy in which reporters, researchers, archivists, political adversaries and posterity itself might have been denied access to her official communications — which she apparently stored on a private server somewhere in her suburban mansion in New York.
But the emails of Jim Yong Kim, Robert Zoellick, Paul Wolfowitz and other World Bank presidents cannot be subpoenaed by Congressional investigators or requisitioned by investigative reporters under any freedom of information law.
That is because the World Bank categorically refuses to release internal communications of any of its executives or staff.
The World Bank Group is a behemoth player on the world stage — it made $65.6 billion in loans, grants and investments between 2013 to 2014 — giving it immense influence in public policy decisions around the world. Its interventions in poor countries from Africa to Asia to Latin America have frequently been beset by scandal, amid allegations that bank-funded projects have displaced poor communities, underwritten human rights abusers and produced poor results.
Yet, while the World Bank ranks client countries for their own transparency, the bank can be comparatively tightfisted in what it will release about itself, creating what critics say is a blanket barrier to accountability.
The bank may have the best open records policy of all multilateral organizations and has progressively become more open since creating its first policy on disclosure in 1985.
Nevertheless, critics say that the bank permits “ridiculously broad” exceptions to the release of records, that effectively maintain the secrecy of its decision-making processes, said Toby Mendel, president of the Center for Law and Democracy, a legal advocacy organization.
“They have a gaping-wide exception for internal documents,” said Mendel. “It puts off-limits all internal communications. There’s no way to justify it.”
Indeed, under a policy that took effect in 2010, what is categorically denied may be what is most interesting of all. The bank apparently may withhold:
- Records of investigations into alleged misconduct and conflicts of interest;
- Communications from, among and within the offices of the executive directors;
- Proceedings of the ethics committee established for officials of the board;
- Personal communications, including emails, from executive directors, senior advisors, the president, other bank officials and their families;
- Records related to “corporate administrative matters,” such as expenses, procurement and real estate;
- “Deliberative information,” which covers a host of records that may inform official decisions, such as notes, letters, memoranda, committee reports and board meeting transcripts.
This created a stark contrast earlier this year in Serbia, which on paper at least should be the best place in the world to request official records — even though press freedom in general appears to be suffering under Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, with websites blocked and reporters under attack.
While the nation of seven million tops the world rankings for its freedom of information laws, journalists in January hit a wall when dealing with the World Bank, which refused to release an internal review of the contract tendering process for a project to drain a flooded coal mine.
The $17 million project was awarded strangely to two inexperienced companies — the director of one of which is now on trial for tax evasion, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
The Government Accountability Project, a Washington legal advocacy group for whistleblowers, spotlighted accusations that Mohieldin had been involved in gross corruption in the privatization of a department store chain.
The bank touts its publication of tens of thousands of documents on its website and says it at least partially approves about 90 percent of the several hundred open records requests it receives every year.
David Theis, a spokesman for the bank, said the bank’s International Development Association, or IDA, had been “placed in the highest category of ‘very good’ in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index published by the UK-based Publish What You Fund.”
“We remain committed to raising the bar of transparency in our work and will continue to strive to raise our standards.”
Helen Darbishire, executive director of Access Info Europe, an organization in Madrid that promotes freedom of information, said the World Bank’s policy continued an unjustified double standard between more accountable national governments and comparatively impregnable international institutions.
“I don’t see, if you really start analyzing it logically, that there is any difference in the level of accountability that an inter-governmental body should have,” she said.
“They should be at least as accountable, at least as transparent,” she added. “The international financial institutions have been very resistant to opening up. That’s not how they’re used to doing business.”
Refusing to release entire categories of information — without specifying a specific interest that this protects — was out of step with generally accepted international norms, according to Darbishire.
An open records convention at the Council of Europe, which is not yet in force, identifies 11 interests, such as public safety, privacy and commercial interests, which have to be balanced against public interest in disclosure.
Darbishire described the outright refusal to release internal communications as “totally outrageous and totally out of line with international standards.”
“You’re blanket excluding information without saying what interest you’re protecting,” she noted, adding, “That’s really a problem.”
The bank’s policies may influence other international financial institutions, such as the Inter-American Development Bank or the Asian Development Bank.
Chad Dobson, executive director of the Bank Information Center, a World Bank monitoring organization, said that, while the information policy left much to be desired, it was still far better than what other world bodies offered. “For international institutions, we think it’s the best thing out there,” he said. “You realize, of course, that most of the United Nations doesn’t have any” open information access policy.
The bank in 2009 shifted to a presumption of disclosure — a fundamental shift in culture, according to Jeffrey Gutman, a former bank vice president involved in implementing the new policy as it took effect in 2010. “The policy was a radical change for the bank,” said Gutman, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Prior to this point, the bank had only agreed to release information that fell within a pre-defined set of categories, or a “positive list.” Now it operates under a “presumption of disclosure,” according to Gutman. “It takes a while for everyone to understand what that means, where everything is open to release that’s outside of that negative list,” he said.
As an institution where officials have both fiduciary duties and diplomatic obligations, it can be difficult to decide what internal deliberations should be made public and which would be harmed by disclosure.
For example, said Gutman, a bank official who suspected fraud in the delivery of pharmaceuticals for a given project could alert the Integrity Vice Presidency, a bank anti-corruption office. Before taking that step, however, the official might seek input from other bank officials.
“You want to have that discussion with management,” Gutman said. “How do you ensure that you always have an open dialogue within the World Bank and candor while also opening up the institution, how do you balance that? It’s always a challenge.”
Theoretically, there are checks on the policy, in the form of an independent appeals board made up of three outside experts.
The board has seen little activity, however. Last year it reversed a World Bank denial of records — the first and only time it had done so in four years of existence, according to the bank.
The journalist Toby McIntosh had requested a list of other people’s requests for information, something routinely released by US federal agencies, but which the bank denied under an exemption for “security and safety.”
McIntosh told 100Reporters that World Bank disclosures based on “public interest” can only be made by the bank itself, not by the Appeals Board.
“That decision is left for the bank. The independent panel can never make that judgment,” said McIntosh.
“That’s an area that would be nice to fix,” he added.
“The bank’s policy is king of dodgy on this,” said McIntosh. “They say, ‘We can but we don’t have to’” release information that the appeals board deems in the public interest.
As a multi-lateral body with sovereign immunity, the bank is not exposed to the demands for accountability that domestic courts and legislatures can impose.
According to Mendel, of the Center for Law and Democracy, this may mean that politics trump sunlight. “There’s a lot of let’s say comity or willingness to respect other countries or organizations’ desires so as to maintain good relations,” he said.
“In principle, no government should be able to veto the release of information in deference to another government that it could not veto under its own access to information law,” he added.
“That’s not how it works at the bank.”
Top photo: A large coal excavator at the flooded coal pit mine near the village of Veliki Crljeni, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Belgrade, Serbia, where more than 20,000 people were forced from their homes. AP Photo by Darko Vojinovic.