Not a Checkbox: The right to information as the foundation for development

By Jocelyn Soto Medallo and Ishita Petkar

Over the last four years, the International Accountability Project (IAP) has tracked the disclosure practices and policies of development finance institutions to see if they are fulfilling communities’ right to access information. Many have missed the mark, failing to center communities in the development process. It’s time to raise the bar.

Til Bahadur Thapa, an indigenous community member affected by a hydropower project in Nepal

Til Bahadur Thapa, an indigenous community member affected by a hydropower project in Nepal funded by the Asian Development Bank, European Investment Bank and Japanese International Cooperation Agency, relates the experience of 32 families affected by this project:

“We did not receive adequate information and opportunity for meaningful participation and proper consultation in the project. Key documents were not provided to us in our native tongue. The form and rates of compensation were determined without our participation and as a result, are unfair, inadequate . . .and are being imposed on us.”

We now know this is not an isolated incident. Each familiar story — borne by communities across geographies and banks — represents a missed opportunity for institutions to prioritize community-led development and facilitate the meaningful engagement of communities through early and comprehensive access to information. It’s a missed opportunity to ensure that communities’ deep understanding of the social and political context is reflected in and improves the project design.

Our work tracking the disclosure practice of development banks grew out of the Early Warning System, an initiative that monitors and produces accessible information for communities about proposed projects disclosed by 15 development finance institutions. The Early Warning System database currently hosts over 15,000 accessible project summaries.

Daily, our Early Warning System regional teams and our partners review 8 to 13 newly proposed projects. We publish accessible project summaries containing project information, and then share this information with our networks of community groups and civil society partners worldwide — ideally before the funding is approved. Our goal is to reach and support communities as close to the proposed projects as possible. It was through this daily process of reviewing and sharing project information that we came to realize just how little information was being disclosed accessibly, in a timely manner, or at all.

Our analysis and advocacy so far has demonstrated that access to information policies and practices at development finance institutions lack the people-centered focus that is so central to fulfilling the right to development.

This is alarming. We have witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of a lack of access to information for the communities we support, evident in flawed land acquisition processes and resettlement plans that only further impoverish people. Information is fundamental to guarantee human rights. It is vital to enable active and meaningful public participation, to understand the severity of impacts of a project, and to realize the right to an effective remedy.

Though rarely realized, centering communities at the outset of project design and implementation is a logical first step towards the goal of sustainable development.

The United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development is unequivocal on this point: “The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development”.

Our Approach

If we start from a place of recognizing the inherent and practical value of centering the entire development process, including the consultation process, on communities, then the logical question is: Why isn’t this happening?

We decided to take a closer look at disclosure practices, the first being that of IDB Invest, the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank. Simply, we tracked 96 projects disclosed within 13 months to see if they disclosed information deemed minimal to enable communities’ understanding of and meaningful participation in a project. We reviewed the:

  • availability of environmental and social information, such as environmental impact assessments;
  • availability of information on the triggered environmental and social safeguard policies (should communities want to know what their entitlements may be and the bank’s responsibilities);
  • availability of information on project contacts (should community members seek additional information or clarification about the project and its impacts);
  • availability of information on the independent accountability mechanisms (should communities want to lodge a grievance); and
  • the timing of this information (or, the number of days’ notice communities receive before project funding is approved).

Based on that first analysis, IDB Invest had fallen far from the mark. We then engaged IDB Invest in strengthening their disclosure practices and policies, and built a coalition of partners who drew from their firsthand experience supporting communities in South America and the Caribbean.

Read IAP’s Interactive Analysis of the IDB Invest: https://tabsoft.co/30dnOWd

The disclosure practice of IDB Invest has since shown some improvement. For instance, we documented more consistent disclosure of project descriptions and information on the independent accountability mechanism. However, while important policy suggestions made by this coalition were adopted — such as more accessible means of communications and the necessity of participatory processes when updating policies — there were regrettable setbacks, such as diminishing the number of days for communities to respond to projects posing a high risk to their social and environmental rights.

IAP’s updated criteria aims to maximize community access to information in evaluating development bank disclosure practices.

Since that first analysis, the criteria by which IAP measures the disclosure practices of development banks has grown in scope and scale: strengthened by the experiences of communities defending their environment and human rights, our criteria tracks development banks not against the benchmarks of their own disclosure policies — which arguably can be further strengthened to prioritize community access — but through criteria which, if met, would establish the foundation for the meaningful fulfillment of communities’ right to information.

We have now assessed the policies and practices of IDB Invest; the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the New Development Bank; and the newly-minted United States International Development Finance Corporation.

Here are three takeaways on the right to information from the Early Warning System:

Communities possess legitimacy and local expertise that can improve the design of potential projects — or even propose more suitable alternatives — anticipating and mitigating adverse impacts and ensuring they achieve positive impacts that further their development priorities. They can also contribute with community priorities that can become a part of projects and assist in how they are received in their locality.

Overall, across all five development banks IAP has engaged with to date, disclosure practice has been weak, particularly regarding the environmental and social information communities require most in order to meaningfully engage in a timely manner. Even when environmental impact assessments or stakeholder engagement plans are disclosed in their entirety, many communities still face the unreasonable burden of deciphering highly technical language, often in a language other than their native tongue. Similarly, access to translations in local languages has been another weak point for the banks we have monitored. Out of the 158 DFC projects we analyzed, not one had project summaries in a language other than English.

This larger trend of inadequate disclosure points to a lack of understanding, or prioritization to rectify, the deeply-seated power asymmetries between community members and project proponents and the hurdles to access that flow from these dynamics. Access to information and development are intertwined: for sustainable development to be realized, communities must lead. And, this requires a careful and diligent dismantling of the obstacles that preclude meaningful participation.

Further, this trend speaks to a devaluation of communities’ perspectives in development, at a juncture when institutions should be doing the exact opposite: if anything, banks should be taking in communities’ deep knowledge of the project area and the social, environmental and political context to inform and improve project design.

This point warrants emphasis: Devaluing community voices is risky, precisely because early meaningful consultation improves the quality of environmental and social impact assessments and mitigates risks. In gleaning lessons from its 23-year caseload, the independent accountability mechanism of the World Bank, the Inspection Panel, cites complaints that resulted, in part, from the absence of early meaningful consultation with communities. In one complaint, concerning a road infrastructure project in Argentina, the Inspection Panel noted: “[C]oncerns about the negative impacts of the project on the hydrology of the area were dismissed. [Project affected people] were viewed as non-experts with insufficient competence to discuss complex hydrological issues.” It follows that the communities were not provided with all relevant information, resulting in tensions that culminated in a complaint to the mechanism. In another, involving a forest concession management project in Cambodia, the Inspection Panel noted that a lack of early consultation with affected communities precluded the inclusion of critical community concerns about the depletion caused by illegal logging.

“The Panel’s experience from its caseload shows the importance of recognizing and valuing local stakeholders’ perspectives and their often deep understanding of the local environmental and social context. . . .The timing of such consultation is also critical, as it opens up, or conversely closes, opportunities to integrate the feedback from consulted parties into project design or implementation activities.”

Approaching these complex issues from a perspective that centers communities’ right to information - not just the disclosure of information - is indispensable for rights-affirming development. This approach can help align projects in a way that will be responsive to the cultural, material and urgent needs of local communities.

As a concept and a right, access to information extends far beyond simple information disclosure — it ensures that communities are equipped with the necessary information to substantively engage in the development processes that will ultimately shape their lives.

Recently, the newer policies of development banks have reflected this distinction, at least in title or rhetoric. In their most recent policy reviews, both IDB Invest and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development adopted “Access to Information Policy” as their title, a shift from language previously focused on information disclosure.

However, shifting from an information disclosure to an access to information mindset requires that the policy recognizes that access to information is a human right, and operationalizes this understanding throughout the policy provisions by being people-centered and adhering to internationally endorsed principles on access to information.

Disclosure policies should also build upon, not erode, the hard-fought international and regional advancements recognizing the right to information. Most recently, the binding Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (otherwise known as the Escazú Agreement) seeks to ensure that all people have access to timely and reliable information, and are able to access justice regarding environmental issues. These advances demand that development banks not only keep up, but be leaders in operationalizing best practice, especially given their progressive development mandates.

The shift from simply disclosing documents online to actually enabling access and inviting active participation in decision making for communities entails a change in both policy and institutional culture, and must transfer directly into practice.

While strong disclosure policies are critical to this shift, they alone are insufficient. In the past 20 years, development banks have made strides in their disclosure policies. Despite many development banks now espousing the principles of transparency and consultation in policy, there is still much to be desired in terms of actual implementation. Why is there a disconnect?

In addition to the procedural obstacles faced by communities in accessing information, entrenched institutional systems and cultures hamper communities’ rights to information. To meet the requirements of the right to information, development institutions’ staff must be aligned with these objectives in their everyday practice of disclosure and reap the benefits of doing so. Instead, institutional incentives favor fast project approvals and pushing money out the door. Often, disclosure is done for disclosure’s sake.

Development finance institutions must anchor communities’ right to information within their institutional culture and disclosure practices. This starts with creating a culture that acknowledges the role communities play in shaping development and understands that early and accessible access to information is not a check-the-box exercise, but an iterative process that is wholly essential to the mandate of sustainable development. This requires a consistent institutionalized focus on the provision of adequate and timely information to facilitate active, free and meaningful participation; unambiguous and non-discretionary guidance, including through operation manuals and implementation guidelines for staff and clients; an incentive structure that rewards staff for robust access to information practices; and a commitment backed by adequate staff and resources. You can read our policy recommendations to IDB Invest to ensure the fulfillment of the right to information in its internal guidance.

Across the board, development institutions should do much more to fulfill communities’ right to information, and ultimately, their right to development. Until community-led development priorities are the first step of any project, communities’ right to development will remain unfulfilled. Development banks should refocus their policies and practices on people, the intended beneficiaries of development, and prioritize enabling their meaningful participation to better project outcomes, and ultimately realize the promise of development.

Til Bahadur Thapa and indigenous communities in Nepal conducting community-led research.

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Resources on IAP’s Right to Information research and advocacy:

Early Warning System — Policy and Advocacy on Right to Information for Communities
Earlier access to information will make development better: Here’s why

Dutch Development Bank (FMO)
Press Release: Transparency at development FMO is seriously lacking

FMO, don’t shirk your responsibilities to the ultimate beneficiaries of your projects — local communities

Data Analysis and Policy Recommendations: In Practice: Information Disclosure at FMO

Visual Data Analysis: What is the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) funding?

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)
Will the EBRD Make a Better Offer on Public Information Disclosure and Engagement?

A Step Forward for Communities’ Rights to Access Information: EBRD Adopts Civil Society Recommendations to Strengthen Transparency and Improve Disclosure

Data Analysis: In Practice: Information Disclosure at the EBRD

Visual Data Analysis: Explore the EBRD’s projects by country, sector, risk category, and disclosure period by an interactive map

Policy Recommendations: The EBRD’s Proposed Access to Information Policy: Comments and Recommendations

European Investment Bank (EIB)

Policy Recommendations: European Investment Bank’s Transparency Policy Review

Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)
Policy Recommendations: Comments and Recommendations on the Inter-American Development Bank’s Update to the Access to Information Policy Profile

Inter-American Investment Corporation (IDB Invest)
We need to be consulted! Examining IDB Invest’s Proposed Access to Information Policy

Why Development Institutions Should Recognize the Right to Know Day: A Case for the Inter-American Investment Corporation

Data Analysis: Access to Information at the Inter-American Investment Corporation

Data Analysis: In Practice: Information Disclosure at IDB Invest

Visual Data Analysis: Explore IDB Invest’s projects by country, sector, risk category, and disclosure period by an interactive map

Policy Recommendations: Recommendations on IDB Invest’s Draft Access to Information Policy

New Development Bank (BRICS Bank)

Closed, Unapproachable and Opaque — How the New Development Bank Drafted its Access to Information Policy

Civil Society Letter to New Development Bank on Access to Information

In Practice: Information Disclosure at the New Development Bank

United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC)
Looking Forward: The United States International Development Finance Corporation Should Adopt Robust Information Disclosure Practices and Policies

Data Analysis: In Practice: Information Disclosure at DFC

Visual Data Analysis: What is the US Development Finance Corporation funding? Data from the Early Warning System

Written Statement of International Accountability Project (IAP) for DFC’s June 2020 Public Hearing

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Jocelyn Soto Medallo is the Deputy Director at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Kuala Lumpur.

Ishita Petkar is the Policy and Community Engagement Coordinator at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Washington D.C.

International Accountability Project works to defend the rights, land and livelihoods of people threatened by destructive development projects.

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