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Thilawa residents were sent to a relocation site that was not even finished. They were eventually moved into a site where conditions were still far below the living standards they had in their former homes.

Earlier this month, the World Bank admitted that it had failed to follow its own policies to protect people displaced by projects funded by the Bank around the world. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Huffington Post report that millions of people have thus been displaced in the last decade.

This is a major shortcoming of an institution that claims to have the goals of delivering development and reducing extreme poverty around the world. Rather than fulfilling these objectives, the Bank’s resettlement policies have been harming the world’s poor and marginalized. To make matters even worse, other development actors around the world have used the World Bank’s resettlement policy as a benchmark for their own policies and guidelines.

ERI has witnessed precisely how problematic the displacement of residents can be in many places around the world, including in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Myanmar. The development of this 2,400-hectare SEZ on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s financial capitol, has already resulted in the resettlement of 68 households and stands to displace and additional 1,055 households.

Displaced family at the Thilawa SEZ relocation site.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has invested 10% of the capital into a consortium with the Myanmar government and private investors from the two countries to develop the SEZ. Because of JICA’s involvement, the project is required to be implemented according to the agency’s own Guidelines for Environmental and Social Considerations, which detail resettlement procedures based on the World Bank’s flawed policies. But so far, this has not happened.

[pullquote]The Myanmar Government tried to resettle the Thilawa residents in November 2013 into a nearby relocation site that was not even finished.[/pullquote] After a short postponement due to public outcry, residents were eventually moved into the site where conditions were still far below the living standards they had in their former homes. The houses at the relocation site are tightly packed next to each other, without enough land to keep animals or grow crops even for subsistence. The housing area is prone to flooding, and water sources and latrines do not conform to international standards, raising serious concerns about health impacts from water-borne and other diseases.

Dry-season flooding around the latrines and houses at the Thilawa SEZ relocation site.

Resettled residents were provided with limited compensation for their homes and crops, but none for the land they had farmed for generations. Additionally, income restoration plans have still not been implemented 15 months after residents’ resettlement, which has plummeted many families further into debt and poverty.

The World Bank has released an Action Plan that is designed to improve its resettlement practices and outcomes under a new organizational structure. It remains to be seen whether this will address the policy’s shortcomings, but it sets an example for other agencies that will similarly need to reform their resettlement policies. With JICA planning additional investment, loans and technical assistance throughout Myanmar and internationally, the agency should review its Guidelines to truly ensure that the problems faced by the resettled residents of Thilawa will not be repeated elsewhere.