Closed, Unapproachable and Opaque — How the New Development Bank Drafted its Access to Information Policy
The New Development Bank (NDB) is a financial institution created by the BRICS association of countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — with a mission to direct resources towards infrastructure and sustainable development. The institution promises to expedite the mobilization of resources in favor ‘emerging economies’, but measured according to its own values and mission, namely transparency, the NDB is falling far short of its stated vision and ambitions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the recently concluded revision to its Access to Information Policy.
The New Development Bank claims it upholds and operates with a belief “in democratic decision-making and inclusivity of all stakeholders.” However, the institution failed to institute a process that was open and participatory when drafting its new Access to Information Policy. Unlike other development banks and institutions, such as the IDB-Invest or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, local communities and civil society were not invited to participate in meetings and/or public consultations. Unless explicitly invited to participate, civil society organizations did not have a chance to share their views — a process that is strikingly at odds with international best norms and practices.
As Priti Darooka from Programme on Women’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights puts it, “the NDB made it very clear that they are not opening the information disclosure policy for any amendments. They did not even share the policy before to seek civil society inputs.” Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the New Development Bank has chosen to forgo public consultations; its current access to information policy was also constructed without civil society input.
For the past three years, the International Accountability Project has been analyzing the information disclosure practices of development finance institutions. We monitor and assess these institutions with the understanding that there cannot be development without early and proper access to information and participation — especially for those whose lives will be most impacted by proposed projects and plans. Having early access to information can mean the difference between a community learning about a project when the bulldozers arrive, and a community engaging with investors to co-design a project that avoids harm and creates real benefits. We do not share the outdated view that development equates to economic growth. There should be no mistake that development is a human right — which puts people, not governments or businesses, at the center — and necessitates the meaningful participation of those that will be affected by it.
In partnership with regional and local civil society organizations, IAP has analyzed the disclosure policies and practices of the IDB Invest (the private arm of the Inter-American Development Bank) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). We undertook a similar analysis for the New Development Bank.
The methodology used to analyze access to information policies is rooted in international access to information best standards and practices. We rely on international treaties and agreements such as United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development, the Escazú Agreement, the Aarhus Convention, and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. Our methodology also draws from the Principles on Freedom of Information, endorsed by the United Nations’ and Organization of the American States’ Special Rapporteurs, and the Transparency Charter for International Financial Institutions.
We use the Early Warning System to collect and verify data that is made available on the bank’s webpage. The research seeks to assess current Bank disclosure practices against criteria, which if met, would establish the foundation for the meaningful fulfillment of communities’ right to access information. These specific criteria are derived from the experiences of communities affected by projects of development institutions, as well as established norms and best practices. The analysis does not evaluate compliance with Bank policies.
Our analysis of the New Development Bank revealed shocking gaps in ensuring access to information. For example, there are no documents available for any of the bank’s publicly disclosed projects. This is especially worrying given that of the 34 projects reviewed, only 4 were still in the preparation stage. This means that even after approval by the board, the bank has not been disclosing project information. Regardless of whether the project is approved or funded, there are no non-technical summaries, no full Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, no Environmental and Social Action Plans, no Stakeholder Engagement plans nor any Consultation Plans. Further, only 5 out of 34 projects mention documents produced to deal with given impacts — such as silt disposal or general environmental plans — but none of these are publicly available.
The bank’s project web pages also failed to disclose information about potential safeguards triggered by projects. Even though some project pages note that the bank will rely on country systems, they fail to identify which of the 3 safeguards are triggered. By not disclosing this information, the bank undermines the importance of its safeguards system and leaves communities without a common framework to discuss project impacts.
The NDB also does not release any contact information for its clients or bank staff. There is no contact information available for communities to send their complaints. Even though there is a general email to send information requests and a whistleblower mechanism for complaints related to corruption, fraudulent practices, and money laundering, these do not seem directed at receiving complaints related to social and environmental harms resulting from projects. Moreover, this information is not available on each project’s webpage, but only in a separate section of the bank’s website.
The NDB scored a zero in all but two sections of the analysis — 1) whether there was a summary or overview of potential E&S harms available and 2) whether there was information on preventing & mitigating harms. Even then, only 8 projects clarified potential harms whereas 2 others stated that the harms were being addressed without disclosing what those harms were. This means that less than a third of projects gave communities advance notice about adverse impacts they might face. These disclosures were substantially less comprehensive than the information the bank provides on the projected improvements that could result from the project.
This trend is particularly problematic considering that more than half of the bank’s projects are likely to have significant social and environmental impacts (9 projects are classified as Category A, the highest risk category, and 14 projects are classified as Category B). Moreover, almost a third of projects belong to unknown risk categories. Comprehensive information on mitigating harms was provided for just 3 projects while 19 only referenced that mitigation measures were in place to deal with harms but did not give further details. Particularly troubling is the fact that none of the projects that were waiting for approval had any information on potential harms or mitigation measures.
Where information is disclosed, it fails to meet the requirements set by international norms and best practices, especially those set by other international finance institutions. With few projects on its horizon, the bank could easily make an effort to translate project information and make it more readily available to the communities closest to project sites. Communities and civil society, in general, find very little space, if any, to contribute to the New Development Bank’s proposed approach to bettering peoples’ lives. Instead, the bank has so far shown little interest in partnering with those most impacted by its projects.
As Priti worryingly communicates, her organization's work on Madhya Pradesh (MP) road project in India shows that none of the affected community had any information about the project. "The construction company just showed up one day," she says. "The Environment and Assessment report that we got from the State government (it is not made public by NDB) is a sham. The report claims around 55 community consultations were held for 65 roads that are to be constructed under the project. In some villages as few as 5 participated in such consultations. Our monitoring revealed that these consultations cannot be verified as there is no signature or photos of participants. No women attended any of the consultations even if they actually took place."
To fulfill the right to information and consultation, communities should have early, informed and timely access to all necessary information. Darooka notes that the bank “is sharing information about the project in the form of information boards. These boards are only installed after the whole project is over as a ‘finishing’ touch. People don’t have any information about the project before. Moreover, boards are not installed in each village the road intersects but only at the start of the road project. Again this doesn’t help people gain access to information, especially women as they don’t travel to other villages.”
Exclusion, rather than participation, appears to be the norm. Even with civil society organizations, the bank is not keen on engagement. The International Accountability Project shared the above analysis with the NDB on the 5th of April 2019, seeking comments from the officials responsible for the policy. However, we are yet to receive a response or even acknowledgment that the bank has received this communication.
We continue to urge the NDB to follow the lead of the EBRD and IDB Invest and open up space for contributions from civil society and local communities. By carrying out a thorough revision and updating of its access to information policy, the New Development Bank stands to not only improve its information disclosure practices but to also usher in its promise of true development.
Alexandre Andrade Sampaio is Policy and Program Coordinator for the International Accountability Project for Latin America and the Caribbean.