You are Holding My World in Your Hands – Can I Bank On the Fact that it Will Be Protected?

By Alyssa Alfonso
By Alyssa Alfonso

The World Bank is one week away from voting on the new Safeguard policy, and the future of community voices in development projects hangs delicately in the balance.

Yet, as it stands, the World Bank Safeguards policy may continue to devalue community voices by failing to require that crucial information on development projects be shared with local communities.

The World Bank’s ultimate goal is to enhance people’s’ quality of life. And yet, the reality is that frequently community needs – the basic needs of those the World Bank hopes to serve – are put on the backburner. When development banks work solely with national actors and large corporations to prioritize economic interests, community voices are left by the wayside. By assuming what works best at the drawing table is what will work best for local communities, development projects are losing valuable insights that may make the project exponentially more beneficial in the long run. What’s worse, neglecting those at the center of the project risks a plethora of negative impacts that could be avoided through community involvement from the outset.

For example: The World Bank builds a dam to bring dependable energy to remote communities. It is called a huge success by the Bank, the media, and the government alike as a transformational step towards clean energy. The headlines forget to mention the thousands of people who were forcibly evicted to make way for the dam’s reservoir.  Progress reports overlook the erasure of the natural river ecosystem hundreds of fisher folk depended on to sustain their families and their livelihoods. While this project was created to help communities, they received no information on the project until after it had begun. Now, the community is left to feel the project’s negative impacts.

Unfortunately, this nightmarish outcome is too often reality.  Communities are not guaranteed that they have access to information about the project, let alone be given a voice in its completion. According to a survey of civil society actors from over 40 countries, 79% of communities learn about development projects that will affect their communities not from the bank itself, but from partner organizations.  This disconnect is only likely to increase as a result of weaker access to information.

Even when communities do finally hear about development projects, it often marks the beginning of many obstacles to come. Intermittent internet access presents a barrier, a serious concern when over ⅓ of communities have to turn to the World Bank website to find information on a project. And half of those surveyed did not have access to information in their own language. Yet when communities do receive information in their native dialect, documents contain dense technical jargon, making it incredibly difficult for communities to understand the project without an expert present. More readable summaries often highlight only the project’s benefits and ignore possible negative impacts, misleading affected communities to the true risks of the project.

Early Warnings can help

Thankfully, CIEL and the International Accountability Project have created a tool to help remedy these issues: The Early Warning System (EWS). The EWS monitors development banks, alerting communities and organizations about development projects that have the highest likelihood of causing environmental and human rights impacts. . This is an incredible first step to help communities become more aware of project impacts before they occur, and ensure they have the tools to truly understand the information available. But it is not a complete solution. Communities need a guarantee that they will have timely access to information, safe space for participation, and effective systems to obtain justice in the wake of development projects.

Space for participation

Communities need and deserve the World Bank’s guarantee to safely have their voices heard, and that starts with timely access to information. Without an enabling environment for participation, communities will continue to be ignored and overlooked. Without access to effective means of redress, development projects will continue to push forward touting benefits for the very people whose lives are being overturned – without consultation.

And yet, it is important to remember that the World Bank is not without reason and does act on occasion. Just this week, it withdrew $73.1 million of funding for a dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project has been said to “[violate] basic environmental and procurement standards” as demonstrated by construction going forward without conducting essential environmental, social, and technical studies.

If the World Bank has the sense to withdraw from a project that violates basic regulatory standards, it must do the same in its actions that violate basic human rights. The World Bank’s ultimate goal is to benefit communities, and it needs to start by prioritizing community needs, voices, and rights. If the World Bank and other development banks truly want development that enables a better life for communities, they must be able and willing to engage with the community to know their needs. Having clear requirements about what documents will be disclosed to communities is essential for this to happen. At a minimum communities should have access to: Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, Resettlement Action Plans and Indigenous Peoples Plans.

We urge the Members of the World Bank Board of Directors to ensure timely access to information and participation in their development projects. The World Bank must make sure that communities are given true prior information in order to be a better partner to the communities it serves.

CIEL has also created the following infographic to clearly depict the World Bank’s devaluation of community needs and the impacts these actions have on local communities.