Critics of World Bank-Funded Projects in the Line of Fire

  • by Kanya DAlmeida (united nations)
  • Monday, June 22, 2015
  • Inter Press Service

The World Bank has increased financial support of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

All day long the protestors, mostly women and their children, would sit in defiance of the initiative that they believed was an environmental and social danger to their community, singing folk songs that spoke of their fears and hopes.

3Their actions were well within the bounds of the law, but the reactions of THDC employees to their peaceful demonstration were troubling in the extreme.

According to one of the women involved, THDC contractors and labourers routinely harassed them by hurling abusive slurs – going so far as to call the women ‘prostitutes' and make derogatory comments about their caste – and attempted to intimidate them by threatening "severe" consequences if they didn't call off their picket.

In a country where activists and communities demanding their rights are routinely subjected to identical or worse treatment at the hands of both state and private actors, this tale may not seem at all out of the ordinary.

What sets it apart, however, is that this hydroelectric project was not simply a government-led scheme; it is financed by a 648-million-dollar loan from the World Bank.

Governed by a set of "do no harm" policies, both the Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have – on paper at least – pledged to consult with and protect local communities impacted by its funding.

But according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the Bank has not only systematically turned a blind eye to reports of human rights abuses associated with its projects, it also lacks necessary safeguards required to avoid further violations in the future.

When silence and negligence equals complicity

Based on research carried out over a two-year period between May 2013 and May 2015, in Cambodia, India, Uganda and Kyrgyzstan – the latter following allegations of rights abuses in Uzbekistan – the report entitled ‘At Your Own Risk: Reprisals Against Critics of World Bank Group Projects' found that Bank officials consistently fail to respond in any meaningful way to allegations of severe reprisals against those who speak out against Bank-funded projects.

In some cases, the World Bank Group has even turned its back on local community members working with its own officials.

Addressing the press on a conference call on Jun. 22, the report's author, Jessica Evans, highlighted an incident in which an interpreter for the Bank's Inspection Panel was flung into prison just weeks after the oversight body concluded its review process.

Withholding all identifying details of the case for the security of the victim, Evans stated that, besides questioning government officials "behind closed doors", the Bank has so far remained completely silent on the fate of an independent activist working to strengthen the Bank's own process.

Such actions, or lack thereof, "make a mockery out of own stated commitments to participation and accountability," the report concluded.

HRW has identified dozens of cases in which activists claim to have been targeted – harassed, abused, threatened or intimidated – for voicing their objections to aspects of Bank or IFC-funded initiatives for a range of social, environmental or economic reasons.

Because the bulk of communities in close proximity to major development schemes tend to be among the poorest or most vulnerable, and therefore lack the access or ability to formally lodge their complaints, the true number of people who have experienced such reprisals is "sure" to be much higher than the figures stated in the report, researchers revealed.

Evans told IPS, "On this issue of reprisals the World Bank's silence and inaction has already crossed the line" into the realm of compliance.

She added that the Inspection Panel raised the issue of retaliation back in 2009, giving the Bank ample time to take necessary steps to address a chronic and pervasive problem.

Instead, it continues to engage with governments that have a poor human rights track record, while remaining apparently deaf to pressures and demands from civil society to strengthen mechanisms that will protect powerless and marginalized communities from violent backlash.

Take the case of Elena Urlaeva, who heads the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and who was arrested in a cotton field on May 31, 2015, while documenting evidence of the Uzbek government's massive system of forced labour in cotton production.

According to HRW, Urlaeva was detained, abused and sexually violated during an extremely violent cavity probe. On the grounds that they were searching for a data card from her camera, male doctors and policemen conducted such a rough and invasive search that the ordeal left her bleeding.

She was forbidden from using the bathroom and eventually forced to go outside the station in the presence of male officers who called her a "bitch", filmed her in the act of relieving herself and threatened to post the video online if she complained about her treatment.

Evans told IPS all of this occurred against a backdrop of the World Bank's increased financial support of the cotton sector – already it has pledged over 450 million dollars to three major agricultural projects of the Uzbek government – despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour.

In the absence of any robust mechanism within the World Bank to make continued funding conditional on compliance with international human rights standards, there is a "real risk" that independent monitors and rights activists will continue to face situations as horrific as the one Urlaeva recently endured, Evans stressed.

A ‘disappointing' reaction

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have tossed the issue of development-related rights abuses from one forum to another.

In his May 2015 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston stressed the urgency of "putting questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation."

He decried several member states' attempts to keep international economics, finance and trade "quarantined" from the human rights framework, and blasted international financial institutions (IFIs) for contributing to this culture of impunity.

"The World Bank can simply refuse to engage with human rights in the context of its policies and programmes, IMF does the same, and the World Trade Organisation is little different," Alston remarked, adding that these bodies throw the issue at the HRC, while the latter simply knocks the ball back into the financiers' court.

It is becoming akin to a game of political ping-pong, with the ball representing the human rights of some of the most impoverished people in the world – at whom multi-million-dollar development projects are ostensibly targeted.

Gretchen Gordon, coordinator of Bank on Human Rights, a global coalition of social movements and grassroots organisations working to hold IFIs accountable to human rights obligations, told IPS, "You can't have successful development without robust civil society participation in setting development priorities, designing projects, and monitoring implementation."

If development banks and their member states neglect to take leadership and implement the necessary protocols and policies, she said, "they will continue to see increasing development failures, human rights abuses, and conflict."

If the World Bank Group's initial reaction to HRW's comprehensive research is anything to go by, however, Bank on Human Rights and other watchdogs of its ilk have their work cut out for them.

Though HRW's researchers invited the Bank and the IFC's input with an in-depth list of questions back in April, they have received nothing but a rather "bland response" that failed to address the issue of reprisals at all and simply stated that the Bank "is not a human rights tribunal."

"I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank," Evans said. "Instead all I am hearing are non-responses. We have proposed really pragmatic recommendations for how the Bank can work effectively in challenging environments, but we are a long way from that at the moment."

Both the Bank's Inspection Panel and the IFC's Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) have greeted the report with enthusiasm, but they are independent bodies and remain largely powerless to effect change at the management level of the World Bank Group.

This power lies with the Bank's president, Jim Yong Kim, who will have to "take the lead and send a clear message to his staff that the question of reprisals is a priority issue," Evans concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

© Inter Press Service (2015) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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