A new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week finds that the World Bank, and its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), are failing to live up to their responsibilities and commitments to public participation and accountability. At Your Own Risk: Reprisals against Critics of World Bank Group Projects, describes numerous instances of retaliation by governments and powerful companies against critics of World Bank Group projects ranging from threats, harassment and intimidation tactics to violent repression of peaceful protests, physical assault and arbitrary arrest by security forces. It finds that IFC and World Bank officials have “failed to respond meaningfully to abuses that make a mockery out of their own stated commitments to participation and accountability.”
The World Bank Group has explicitly recognized the risk of retaliation and intimidation to those who criticize projects – including those who seek to lodge human rights complaints with the World Bank’s Inspection Panel or the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO). Yet in repressive environments, the report finds, the World Bank Group has all too often “closed its eyes to the risk of abuse rather than engage in difficult conversations” with its partners, leaving victims to fend for themselves.
The report also notes the Indian Government’s recent crackdown on environmental and human rights organizations and activists that it sees as being “anti-development.” As I explained earlier this month, the Indian Government has labeled groups that criticize massive development projects for their human rights and environmental impacts as “un-patriotic” and a “significant threat to national economic security.” The HRW report notes that the NGOs that have been targeted by Indian authorities include a number of World Bank/IFC watchdog groups that have campaigned around the Tata Mundra Power Plant project in Gujarat and called on the IFC to withdraw its support for the project in light its large-scale human rights and environmental impacts.
The communities around the Tata Mundra Plant filed a complaint with the CAO – the IFC’s own accountability mechanism – seeking redress for their suffering. The CAO issued a damning report finding that the IFC had failed to ensure that the project met the Environmental and Social Standards necessary for IFC projects, and failed to take necessary steps to protect local communities and the environment. But the IFC rejected the CAO’s findings. It didn’t withdraw and it didn’t act to remedy the harm to communities or the environment. With no other options for redress left, individuals and communities affected by the disasterous project filed a lawsuit against the IFC in April, with the assistance of EarthRights International. The lawsuit alleges the IFC’s handling of the project and the harm it has caused represents a failure by the IFC to carry out its mission to end extreme poverty and perform investment activities with the intent to “do no harm” to people and the environment.
[Company] officials have threatened to kill us. We are suffering a life of horror.… We request you to immediately suspend funding of the project and save our lives.
– Letter to country director from a community member affected by a World Bank-financed project in northern India.
HRW’s investigation is the latest to uncover serious lapses by the World Bank and IFC in compliance with their own rules and standards. Two recent reports describe a toxic workplace culture where the majority of employees have lost faith in World Bank leadership and fear retaliation by management for speaking out. According to an internal staff survey completed by about 12,000 staffers (nearly 80% of the workforce), only 26% of employees agreed that the Bank’s leadership “creates a culture of openness and trust” and only 41% said they believed they could report unethical conduct without fear of reprisal. In a leaked document that compiled the open-ended comments submitted as part of the survey, staff repeatedly used the words “fear” and “retaliation.”
In April, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the first story in its “Evicted & Abandoned” investigation into how the World Bank Group has failed to enforce its own standards meant to protect people displaced by the projects it finances. It found that an estimated 3.4 million people have been physically or economically displaced by World Bank Group projects since 2004 and that despite its commitment to poverty reduction, the World Bank and the IFC have regularly failed to follow their own rules. Another recent report slammed the World Bank Group for its climate hypocrisy – calling for urgent action on climate change while simultaneously increasing its funding for fossil fuels, and continuing to finance coal, despite its pledge to stop financing coal power projects.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has proposed changes to its social and environmental safeguards policies which would actually weaken existing protections for vulnerable communities, a move that has been criticized by UN human rights officials, civil society organizations, and the U.S. Congress, among others. Weakening the only protections in place intended to minimize harm to people and the environment would only fail the most vulnerable and undermine the mission of the World Bank Group.
It’s clear that change is needed, but thus far, World Bank leadership appears to be looking in all the wrong places.