As the 2016 Aid Transparency Review shows some improvement for the two main European lenders, they are still far from reaching satisfying transparency standards.

As each year since 2010, the transparency watchdog Publish What You Fund (PWYF) went again knocking on the doors of the world’s major donor organisations to check how well they implement aid transparency standards.

The 2016 Aid Transparency Index (ATI) brings relatively good news for Europe’s two main development banks, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). It notices an improvement that brought both the institutions to be finally labelled as “fair” (the highest categories being “good”, and “very good”), as opposed to the repeatedpoorscoring of the past few years.

This partially positive achievement represents first of all a success for civil society, whose tireless push for better transparency of the two European giant lenders is slowly bringing some results. Through campaigns, public consultations and formal complaints, Counter Balance, Bankwatch and their partners have advocated for public access to information for years.

The modest improvements in the Aid Transparency scoring should not blind us, though. Both banks have indeed a long way ahead to live up to their commitments. PWYF remarks about the 'notable improvers':

“[S]evere transparency issues become evident in the levels of reporting on the budget identifier, impact appraisals, results and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs); none of the donors included in the ‘fair’ category scores on these indicators”.

Let’s look at their performance in more detail.

Murky waters for the EU’s house bank

Timidly jumping from a score of 46.3 per cent in 2014 to 53.5 per cent in 2016, the EIB’s progress appears quite disappointing. Even more so, if we consider that in March 2015 the bank approved its new Transparency Policy, supposed to promote strengthened transparency and accountability practices for the future. As already pointed out by civil society and claimed by the European Parliament, the bank’s new transparency policy is not fit for purpose.

Among its many gaps, the bank still fails to comply with basic transparency practices concerning its governing bodies, such as disclosing the minutes of its Board of Directors meetings. In 2015 Counter Balance managed to obtain a redacted version of the minutes of one of those meetings, hopefully setting a precedent to turn this into a standard practice in the future.

It is not a coincidence that our requests were echoed in a letter sent last February by the European Ombudsman to the EIB’s President Werner Hoyer, inviting the bank to a more “proactive” implementation of its transparency policies.

In particular, the bank appears to be lagging behind with disclosing information that is relevant to its loans and projects, as well as its register of environmental information and the use of the result measurement systems. For instance, despite specific requests, the bank still refuses to actively publish its development impact assessment sheet for projects financed outside the EU. Such information would be key for assessing how well the bank is monitoring the development impact of its projects.

Last but not least, as we highlighted in a recent complaint to the EU Ombudsman, the EIB seems determined not to let information about internal investigations leak to the outside, concealing issues of public interest that could represent corruption and maladministration.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

The EBRD has made a notable improvement since the 2014 index moving from 24.5 to 49.7 per cent in the index, as it started publishing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) on a quarterly basis in 2015. Still its commitment to aid transparency is rated at 3.52/10.

In the experience of those monitoring the EBRD, the bank often puts the interest of its clients before the public's right to know, but also that it fails to demonstrate the results and real impacts of its investments.

Particularly on project level, the responsibility for disclosure is often placed on the clients, but the failure of clients to respond adequately to disclosure requests does not prevent the bank from claiming that it raises transparency standards through its projects. For example last week an information request received the following answer: “Disclosure of third-party audit reports is neither a requirement of our Environment and Social Policy nor of our Public Information Policy.”

For years the EBRD has promised regular up-dates to Project Summary Documents, but progress is hardly visible, especially if compared to project disclosure of the IFC (which is in the Poor category of the Index). In the above mentioned case the EBRD has failed to up-date the PSD since 2012, although its board of directors approved the deal in 2015.

In the Aid Transparency Index, PWYF notes that all activity-related documents and performance information are not published to the IATI Registry.

Information on allocation policies, country strategies, objectives, tenders and budgets are published but not in the IATI Standard while at the activity-level sub-national locations, evaluations, contracts, results and impact appraisals are not consistently published. MOUs, budget documents and conditions are not published at all.”

Bankwatch recently submitted the first information disclosure complaint to the EBRD's Project Complaints Mechanism (PCM), after the bank failed to disclose on time a board document for a public sector project in Serbia, breaching its Public Information Policy. This is just one of many examples of the clumsy dialogue between the bank and civil society. Hands-on experience with monitoring the activities of the EBRD shows a daily struggle with delayed answers and begs more PCM complaints.

In conclusion, the progress on transparency of the two European public banks is welcome and credit should be given for their efforts to publish to the IATI. Still the culture of the institutions has yet to change to enable real transparency, meaningful public participation in decision-making, as well as accountability and a clear demonstration of the development impact of their activities.