Asian Civil Society Organizations Convene Workshop in Thailand on Accountability for Development Harms

June 14, 2017

Bangkok, Thailand – Representatives from 35 civil society organizations and community groups based in 11 countries in South and Southeast Asia participated in a workshop on how individuals and communities harmed by development projects can seek recourse. The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, NGO Forum on ADB, International Rivers, International Accountability Project, and the Center for International Environmental Law organized the workshop, held on June 6, 2017, in partnership with the independent accountability mechanisms of the World Bank Group – the Inspection Panel and the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman – and the Asian Development Bank.

“Communities impacted by development projects can face limited and tenuous options for recourse. Filing a complaint to an accountability mechanism is often one important tactic for communities to seek remedy. It is important these mechanisms remain independent and accessible,” said Anirudha Nagar, South Asia Director of Accountability Counsel.

In 1993, the Inspection Panel, the first independent accountability mechanism of its kind, was created to address the grievances of those negatively impacted by World Bank financing. Since then, other development finance institutions have followed suit, creating their own mechanisms to address complaints from people who are harmed by development projects.

However, communities harmed by a development project often face substantial obstacles to accessing these mechanisms. Prabindra Shakya of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact commented: “Unfortunately, people often learn about development projects when the bulldozers have arrived and ground has been broken. It is rare that they are aware of the financing of the project and what recourse mechanisms exist.” A key goal of this workshop was to build awareness of the development financing in the region and to increase communications between the independent accountability mechanisms and civil society and community groups in the region.

In recent years, the context in which civil society, community groups, and ultimately potential complainants operate has drastically changed, adding additional obstacles to access to remedy. “Increasingly, communities and the organizations that support them in voicing dissent to a development project face threats to their security,” stated Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia Director for International Rivers. “When complainants come forward with a complaint – to a national body or an independent accountability mechanism – they do so at real risk to their lives.”

Civil society and community groups underscored the need for development institutions, like the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank, to create a space for meaningful public consultation by project affected communities and to address and mitigate the growing threat to environmental and human rights defenders, which have included intimidation, threats of harm or violence, and spurious legal threats. “Development finance institutions and the accountability mechanisms that sit within them can no longer ignore the pressing security challenges faced by these communities. It’s high time these institutions make a public commitment to ensure their investments create an enabling environment for meaningful public participation and safeguard human rights and environmental defenders,” stated Jocelyn Medallo, Director of Policy and Advocacy at International Accountability Project.

Civil society groups also underscored the shifting development landscape in Asia. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has rapidly emerged as an important financier of development and infrastructure projects in the region, often co-financing with other development institutions in the region. At the same time, the rise of lending instruments, such as financial intermediaries, coupled with the push for private sector financing in fragile governance countries, have raised concerns about transparency and the obfuscation of accountability for harmful development projects.

“Development of robust safeguards and accountability mechanisms has lagged behind the push for economic development. The AIIB’s practice of co-financing with other institutions reduces clarity on applicable safeguards and may reduce accountability for adverse project impacts,” stated Rayyan Hassan, Executive Director of NGO Forum on ADB.

Representatives from independent accountability mechanisms shared information about their roles, responsibilities, and limitations. Importantly, the workshop allowed for participants to critically reflect on past and potential engagements, while addressing difficult questions – did filing complaints materially improve the lives and living conditions of communities? What barriers exist for communities in Asia to access remedy? What resources are available to communities or individuals facing threats of retaliation?