World Bank’s Broken Promises to Displaced Communities Exposed

As ministers, business leaders, NGOs and policymakers descended on Washington last week for the World Bank’s semi-annual high-level meetings, the Bank’s carefully cultivated image of respectability was tarnished by a damning new report on its role in financing large-scale evictions and forced displacement. Following an 11-month-long investigation, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published an exposé that identified “systematic gaps” in the Bank’s ability to ensure that those impacted by its projects are not left worse off – as required by Bank policy.

Shockingly, the reporting found that the Bank is unaware of even how many people its projects have displaced, a figure ICIJ estimates at 3.4 million over the last decade. ICIJ documented communities subjected to forced evictions, human rights abuses from Bank-financed coal plants, land schemes, and dams. “The bank’s commitment, it says, is to ‘do no harm’ to people or the environment,” the authors write. “The World Bank has broken its promise.”

Mwanza villagers would be affected by further dam development at the Inga site in DRC
Mwanza villagers would be affected by further dam development at the Inga site in DRC
Terri Hathaway/International Rivers

The World Bank is no stranger to these allegations. Indeed, it was in large part destructive Bank-financed dam projects in the 1970s and ‘80s that ousted millions from their land, and the resistance movements they engendered, that led the Bank to adopt a resettlement policy in the first place.

Now, the World Bank is at pains to distance itself from that painful past. In its promotional materials on large hydro published just last year, it claimed that “Significant progress has been made in improving the design and implementation of resettlement programs over the last 15 years…The multipurpose hydropower projects supported by the World Bank Group during 2002–14 have resettled about 70,000 people [resulting in] improved livelihood for those resettled and for others affected by the projects.” 

But as the ICIJ’s reporting shows, and the World Bank even admitted a few weeks ago in an attempt to get out ahead of the story that the Bank lacks even the mechanisms to find out the fate of those it displaces. Indeed, while the Bank may no longer be displacing 200,000 at a time to make way for large reservoirs, its track record is little improved:

Young children in a house on the Nakai Plateau, which will be inundated by the proposed Nam Theun 2 Dam. Bolikhamxai and Khammouane Provinces, Laos, 2009.
Young children in a house on the Nakai Plateau, which was inundated by the Nam Theun 2 Dam. 
Photo courtesy of Virginia Morris & Clive Hills

Despite acknowledging its resettlement failures, however, the World Bank remains undeterred, its Bank President Jim Kim telling the Financial Times in March that Africa is underdammed and that “dam projects always lead to resettlement.” As the World Bank sets its sights on the Inga 3 Dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo – expected to require over 10,000 people to be resettled – and paves the way for West Africa’s Fomi Dam – expected to displace 48,000 people with millions more impacted downstream on the Niger River – President Kim’s promise that the Bank “must and will do better” offers little comfort. Given the Bank’s repeated failures to learn the lessons from its past, this latest pledge rings hollow.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015