To follow up on my last post, probably the best article on
THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION: A HUMAN RIGHT
Earlier in the week I had the privilege to attend a forum on “The Right to Information and Legal Accountability in International Financial Institutions” held at the University of the
Panelists and audience combined amounted to not more than sixty or seventy people; it might have been good had a larger number of people been able to participate as the issues taken up are important to the
There was general agreement that information about development infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the other multilateral development banks is far more accessible today than, say, fifteen years ago. This was also of personal interest to me as I was working on these issues in the mid-1990s while living in
The ADB’s associate secretary for compliance review, Suresh Nanwani, made an interesting point at the outset. He said that while panelists certainly had disagreements, everyone there agreed on the importance of these issues. Communities should have information about project plans that will impact there lives, and they should have input on the discussion. “Operationalizing this,” however, “can be a different matter.” He noted that despite their disagreements, they all spoke the same language. Although not all were lawyers, they could all follow legal arguments. Although not all were economists or social scientists, they all understood the concepts. They meet in gatherings like this, “and we bond.” What, on the other hand, could it possibly mean for a small farmer in
Toby Mendel, a Canadian-based attorney working for the Article XIX Global Campaign for Free Expression, presented a human rights argument in favor of ready access to information from the MDBs. Essentially he argued that the right to information is enshrined in United Nations covenants and should be held as equal in legal weight to the individual’s right to not be tortured. Further, just as nation states should not torture people and cannot establish other institutions with the right to torture people, likewise, nation states are bound to provide their citizens with information about their plans and activities and any institutions that nation states establish – individually or collectively – are also bound to provide information about their activities. Access to information is a human right, just as the right to not be tortured is a human right.
The mechanisms that would allow individuals to take up human rights cases with multilateral entities are not yet in place, however. In the long run the international treaties that brought the MDBs into being will have to be re-written to make MDBs accountable to individuals. This will take a long time, Mendel conceded. Still, policies have been put in place and must be strengthened which do make the MDBs more accountable.
One problem is that communities which take issue with an MDB project can only make appeals within the MDB compliance process itself. There is no higher authority outside the MDB to which individuals or communities may appeal and which could compel MDB compliance.
The ADB’s Nanwani briefly outlined the process by which communities can raise objection to project plans. This can result in additional reviews and copies of the review document are then made available to both the ADB directors and the community that has taken issue. This actually goes further than the World Bank process where review documents are only made available to the directors and not to the community concerned.
I would concur that significant progress has been made in the last 15 years toward making the development banks more accountable. Accountability assumes, however, that the target country enjoys at least a relative degree of democracy, and has a vibrant civil society that can make meaningful to the “small farmer” this access to information. Unfortunately, most of the governments which receive infrastructure loans from the MDBs are not very democratic.
I recall a conversation at the World Bank that I was part of way back in the mid-1990s along with the Philippine peasant leader Jaime Tadeo and the Bank’s senior agricultural analyst for the
Tadeo reminded him that the Filipino people had changed their government when they ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, yet the people were still being made to pay back the loans that the dictator incurred. The loans, in effect, are not made to governments, but to people who have little say in them.
The situation has improved, but the MDBs are still working with dictators.