Why We Write.

The World Bank will be rolling out its new environmental and social policy in 2018. The objective of this policy is “to help protect people and the environment in the investment projects it finances.” Yet after years of statements, meetings, unending papers, and heated debates, the bank created a system of open-ended compliance, discretionary rules, and many reduced protections.

As an integral part of this effort, the Bank drafted a set of Guidance Notes for the governments who borrow funds for development projects. These Guidance Notes are meant to guide borrowers as they design such projects, by defining the requirements of the policy and providing examples of good practice for evaluating the environmental and social impacts of a project on communities.

After the World Bank’s new environmental and social policy was released in August 2016, CIEL and our partners continued to exert pressure on the World Bank to release the long-awaited Guidance Notes. Bank officials claimed these notes would fill gaps in the policy by providing clear instructions for borrowers to fulfill their due diligence requirements. The process for their creation and release was again uncertain, and although the World Bank assured civil society that we would have a role in their creation, this did not occur. Ultimately, the draft notes were released for public comment fifteen months later, with civil society being allowed to provide input only at the tail end of the process.

As soon as the draft notes were issued, CIEL and partners worldwide dove into the documents. Our collective reaction was severe disappointment: Broadly, the notes lacked actual recommendations and guidance for borrowing countries. Further, they do not reflect years of dialogue between civil society and the Bank.

The World Bank provides loans to developing countries with the long-term goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity. In theory, the World Bank could serve as an agent of change in the world. But all too often, we see projects approved in the name of development that harm local communities, infringe on human rights, damage the environment, and exacerbate conditions of marginalization and discrimination.

It is for that reason that a robust set of safeguards and guidelines are so important. To ensure that projects financed by the World Bank benefit rather than harm local communities and the environment, World Bank employees and borrowers alike must be equipped with information and best practices on how to properly consult with local communities, avoid environmental damage, and actually improve lives.

This is what the World Bank is attempting to do through its new Environmental and Social Framework and accompanying Guidance Notes for Borrowers. But while a couple of the draft guidance notes provide practicable advice, most miss the mark completely.

On the positive side:

The World Bank provided some valuable recommendations in the Guidance Note on Resource Efficiency and Pollution Prevention and Management. This note provides a good model for what the guidance notes should look like overall: It offers some useful examples for policy implementation and some clear suggestions of what constitutes good practice. Most notably, it references several international conventions on the use and management of chemicals, hazardous materials, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms.

We also wholeheartedly welcome the fact that the Labor Guidance Note includes the Core Labor Standards set forth by several International Labour Organization and United Nations Conventions. These include Freedom of Association and Organization, Collective Bargaining, Abolition of Forced Labor, Minimum Age, Child Labor, and Equal Pay.

Unfortunately, the other standards did not receive equal treatment. Many guidance notes simply restate the vague, sometimes confusing language of the policy itself. Most lack tangible, specific steps that borrowers can use in evaluating or carrying out their projects.

And all the rest lack references to relevant international laws and human rights obligations. Governments around the world have adopted standards and policies that are recognized as fundamental to respecting human rights. Yet the World Bank failed again in this opportunity to include international law as a valuable resource for borrowers and bankers alike to evaluate environmental and social impacts.

These international agreements represent decades of efforts to achieve recognition, protection, and respect for indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s and children’s rights, cultural heritage, and biodiversity, among many others. Also missing are references to international standards on transparency, grievance redress, and meaningful consultation and participation.

Thus, many of the guidance notes do not provide much guidance. Yet again the World Bank has missed the mark.

Having a robust set of Guidance Notes not only benefits local communities and the environment. It benefits the Bank itself. By providing strong guidance to borrowers who are proposing and implementing projects, the World Bank can:

  • Avoid risks to its reputation that result from poorly planned, evaluated, or implemented projects;
  • Provide adequate and equitable remedy to affected communities;
  • And alleviate poverty while promoting real sustainable development.

Now, we call on the World Bank to create robust guidance notes for all the Environmental and Social Standards.

It would also be fruitful for the Bank to provide civil society another opportunity for feedback on the next draft of these standards before they are finalized. Last year, the World Bank recognized that civil society from around the world played an important role in the safeguards review. If we are acknowledged as partners in this process, the World Bank can create a set of standards that respect the role of borrower states in their development but also protect communities and the environment in the process.

As we keep writing furiously to comment on these policies, we are always reminded of the reason why: the communities around the world who bear the heaviest burden of development projects.

In solidarity,

Photo of Carla García Zendejas, Director of People, Land, and Resources at CIEL

Carla García Zendejas

Director, People, Land, and Resources

Originally posted on December 15, 2017