Lori Pottinger Responds to Sebastian Mallaby's Accusations Regarding NGO Secrecy

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sebastian Mallaby
c/o The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Mr. Mallaby,

I was quite surprised to see that my very brief phone conversation with you received such prominence in your recent article in Foreign Policy. My recollection of the call differs from yours. I remember that you were vague about identifying yourself and your professional affiliations, were aggressive in your line of questioning, and that I responded with caution. Given International Rivers’s history of helping journalists with stories on Bujagali1, you can rest assured that had you clearly said "This is Sebastian Mallaby of Foreign Policy (or the Washington Post or the whoever)," I would not have felt it necessary to use as much caution as I did.

International Rivers is always cautious when sharing information about our contacts living in a political climate in which they may be at risk for taking strong positions on government–supported projects or policies. Such was the case in Uganda when you contacted me. NAPE was at that time under intense pressure from President Museveni to drop the campaign. In 2002, the President publicly denounced Bujagali opponents as "economic saboteurs" and "enemies of the state." In a Jan. 26, 2002 article in the state–owned New Vision, President Museveni said, "Those who delay industrial projects are enemies and ... I am going to open war on them." In light of such threats, we do not treat requests from unknown sources lightly. In my opinion, you were an unknown source to me at the time of your call.

I regret that you’ve chosen to publicly accuse me of trying to cover up something and, more particularly, that you have chosen to ridicule our colleagues in Uganda. My high opinion of NAPE is based on working with them closely for five years. In your brief visit to their office, you determined them to be a "grouplet" with little legitimacy. You say their small membership does not give them "a broad platform from which to oppose electricity for millions." (A point in fact: small grassroots groups are the norm in Uganda, there are no mass–based NGOs there.) First, you are mistaken to imply that NAPE is isolated in its concerns about Bujagali Dam. We have personally met with Ugandan academics, students, members of Parliament, journalists and other local NGOs who express strong misgivings about this specific project. Not all have been willing to be as public with their criticisms as NAPE, because of the President’s strong backing of the project and the possible consequences of criticizing it too openly. In fact, some have told us that NAPE’s outspokenness on the dam has opened up political space to begin discussing controversial topics and civil society’s role in these debates.

Your assertion that Bujagali would provide power "for millions" is an exaggeration. The government does not have the resources to expand the grid to the point that millions will benefit from this project. Less than 5 percent of Ugandans are currently connected to the national power grid and most could not afford electricity even if they were provided free connections to the grid. World Bank data reveals that grid–based electricity is unlikely to reach many unserved people for the foreseeable future2. The government does not have the resources to expand the grid to the point that millions will benefit from this project.

As for project–affected people, you paint a rosy picture that is not borne out by our own fact–finding visits to the resettled villages, nor recent visits by a representative of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel. These visits revealed that many of those already moved for the now–stalled project feel abandoned by the government and AES, and that they still do not have land title to their new lands, leaving them in a legal limbo. Schools and health care facilities are inadequate, and they are farther from roads and the water and fisheries resources that the river provided. NAPE is now working to ensure that these concerns are addressed.

The issues surrounding the secrecy of the project’s contract offers a case in point of how civil society’s actions have been beneficial to Uganda. To avoid taking on the project’s substantial risks, AES negotiated a binding contract with the Uganda government which in effect would have forced the government to pay for the dam’s power even if it cannot sell it – and even if the dam is not producing its full output of electricity. Parliamentarians have said this deal was negotiated under great pressure from President Museveni, and that their attempts to press for a better deal were sidelined. The contract between the government and AES had for years been kept secret, but information leaked out that it was highly unfavorable to Uganda, and that taxpayers were taking on much of the project’s risk. Ugandan lawyer Kenneth Kakuru went to court and successfully gained the public release of the contract. Following release of an analysis that found Bujagali to be more than twice as expensive as a comparatively designed dam in India, Uganda’s energy minister asked AES to reduce the cost of the project. Since AES pulled out of the project in 2002, the Government has sought investors who might build the project at a greatly reduced cost.

Another example of how Ugandan civil society has improved the debate on electricity options is the sea–change on the issue of geothermal energy. Uganda has excellent reserves of geothermal power, which could be available sooner than Bujagali, at a competitive price, at lower risk of exposure to drought and climate change, and with greater flexibility in meeting changing growth in demand for grid electricity. Despite this, the Ugandan government and World Bank were unwilling to investigate geothermal before building Bujagali. In April 2003, NAPE and other local NGOs held a workshop in Uganda that brought geothermal experts from around the world to discuss the nation’s geothermal potential and obstacles to accelerating its development. This was the first time a renewable energy alternative had been raised to a national level in Uganda. Top officials in the Ministry of Energy supported the geothermal workshop with enthusiasm – a dramatic change from the days when only Bujagali was on the table. The workshop’s keynote speaker was the Minister of State for Energy in Uganda, who used the opportunity to announce that the Ugandan government will invest $2 million in geothermal exploration. Some 80 people attended, including Parliamentarians, other government officials, academics and civil society. Since then, geothermal development in Uganda has begun to progress, and the World Bank has begun to support it.

This project exemplifies our belief that a closed decision–making process is more likely to lead to a high–cost project marred by corruption, injustices and project–delaying protests that could have been avoided with more inclusive planning.

As you point out, NGOs are not elected. Neither are you nor the other editors of the various publications you write for. But surely you’d agree that both the media and NGOs have a legitimate role to play in holding governments, companies and each other accountable. Key to this legitimacy, however, is reporting and commentary that is based on information that is as accurate as possible. I believe that your article in Foreign Policy did not meet this standard.

Finally, we will respond to the broader issues raised in The World’s Banker separately.


Lori Pottinger
International Rivers

CC: Moisés Naím, Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations


1. We have provided extensive input and background information on Bujagali (including local contacts) to reporters from the New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, BBC, The UK Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Institutional Investor and others over the past few years. None of these outlets merely parroted what we told them, nor would we expect them too.

2. "No more than 7% of the total population [in Uganda] can afford unsubsidized electricity... It is unrealistic to think that more than a fraction of the rural population could be reached by a conventional, extend–the–grid approach. A more promising course is to rely instead on ‘alternative,’ ‘non–conventional’ approaches to electrification." "Uganda Energy Assessment," ESMAP/World Bank, 1996.

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