Tag Archives: Laos

Will the World Bank safeguard human rights in its new high-risk strategy?

by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski

There are big changes happening at the World Bank today, which will have far reaching consequences for millions of the world’s poor.

For the first time in over a decade, the Bank is undergoing a major review of its Safeguard Policies, which serve to ensure that Bank projects do no harm to people and the environment.  While civil society groups are pushing to strengthen the policies and upwardly harmonize them with international human rights and environmental standards, the view that seems to prevail within the Bank’s senior management is that the World Bank needs to become a more attractive lender, with fewer strings attached to its loans, in order to “stay relevant” in the face of increasing competition from Brazil and China.

The World Bank, under President Jim Yong Kim, is trying to redefine itself for the 21st century. Mr. Kim has admirably reoriented the Bank’s strategy around its original poverty reduction mandate, setting two ambitious goals for the institution: the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030 and promotion of ‘shared prosperity’ to boost the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of the population.

Yet Mr. Kim often speaks about the need for the Bank to be less risk averse and support more “transformational large-scale projects” in order to achieve these ambitious goals.  Many are starting to worry that this discourse is code for gutting the Bank’s social and environmental requirements, which are seen by some as inhibiting risk taking, while returning the Bank to the business of financing mega-projects.  The irony is that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities – the very people the Bank has pledged to work for – are the ones who will bear the greatest risks if these concerns are realized.

One of the primary ways in which these risks materialize is in the form of development-induced forced displacement. As described by sociologist Michael Cernea, forced displacement remains a “major pathology” in Bank-sponsored development around the world.  According the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, more than one million people are affected by forced displacement and involuntary resettlement from active Bank projects at any given point in time. Displacement is often accompanied by threats of and use of violence and results in loss of livelihoods and education, food insecurity, and psychological trauma.

Although the Bank has a resettlement policy aimed at avoiding these harms, local communities displaced in the name of “development” continue to face impoverishment and violations of their human rights due to Bank-financed projects. Revisions of the policy that harmonize it with international human rights standards, coupled with incentives for improved implementation could end put an end to this injustice.

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The Economist on land and natural resources in Southeast Asia

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Economist has run a number of interesting pieces on housing, land and property (HLP) issues as well as natural resource disputes, in southeast Asia (readers be warned: the paywall arrangement now allows non-subscribers to view five articles for free every week, but I think the below pick just squeak in).

Beginning with Burma/Myanmar, a pair of articles from last week’s issue highlight the dark economic underbelly of the country’s current political reform process. A comment on the standoff over the opposition’s refusal to swear an oath to “safeguard” the current, military junta-installed constitution notes the risk that the political debate about the constitution may be a sideshow. Given that the reforms made so far have been enough to ease economic sanctions on Burma, and that the generals that have symbolically conceded political power continue to retain their economic interests, the Economist concludes that “all the boasts of political reform look less like a blueprint for democracy, and more like the generals’ pension plan.”

These concerns serve to reinforce earlier inferences (discussed here and here in TN) that a wave of dubious privatization that preceded the current round of political liberalization may have been intended to allow the military leaders of the country to cash in on their land and natural resource grabs. The extent of this rapaciousness is documented in a separate Economist article, which describes how the nearly feudal style of military occupation of the rebellious ethnic states in Myanmar has opened the door to both wholesale natural resource theft and drug trafficking:

On the back of its formal military role, the army has also built up a suffocating economic grip on the region. Across Myanmar, the national army has for years pursued a policy of “living off the land”. Battalions are obliged to become their own farmers and businessmen in order to feed themselves and pay their wages.

In my earlier comments on Burma (linked above), I raised the risk that liberalization could follow the same path as in Cambodia, where a neo-patrimonial regime has dangled the barest of fig leaves over its essentially predatory governance mode. The continuity of this tradition has been confirmed in this week’s Economist, which reports on the apparent killing by the Cambodian military of Chhut Vuthy, an activist against illegal logging who founded the Natural Resources Protection Group.

Remaining with Cambodia, it seems that what one does within one’s own borders is one thing, but that cross-border rapaciousness will not be tolerated. The Economist also reports this week that Cambodia has led fierce protests against a unilateral decision by Laos (cheered on by Thai construction interests) to begin construction of a massive dam on the Mekong River, despite a recommendation by a regional commission that further study on the downstream effects be undertaken.

Finally, HLP rights expert Daniel Fitzpatrick is quoted in an interesting report on East Timor. There, it seems the post-independence government succeeded to the ‘state land’ previously taken from smallholders by successive Portuguese and Indonesian occupiers, and is now facing a familiar dilemma. On one hand, justice requires some form of recognition of the claims of those previously dispossessed in the countryside. On the other hand, the lure of badly needed revenues from international concessions beckons.

Week in links – week 17/2011

A somewhat abbreviated WiL this week as the family is on Åland for an extended Easter break.

BBC coverage of this week’s Communist Party congress in Cuba leads with the news that private property rights will be allowed again, though the details have yet to be released. The main rule at this point appears to be that “concentration of property” will not be permitted. One is tempted to wonder if part of the motivation is to cut off restitution claims by Cuban exiles. As a stratagem, this worked rather well in Cambodia, but that was the Eighties…

– The European Journal of International Law (EJIL) has released its latest issue online. The focus is on the ‘human dimension of international cultural heritage law’, with quite a lot on the restitution of cultural property but also a number of interesting articles on indigenous peoples’ rights, including to land.

– The New York Times reports that scientists met in Aleppo, Syria this week to develop strategies for combating new diseases afflicting wheat. Let us hope that they are not hit by any stray bullets from the strategies the Syrian security forces have developed for combating new diseases afflicting authoritarianism.

– Tim Dunne and Jess Gifkins do a nice job in OpenDemocracy of pushing along the debate on how the current Libya intervention may both support and undermine the new concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P).

– Finally, the New York Times reported first on the pending collapse of a promising flurry of regional cooperation over damming the Mekong in Southeast Asia – and then its actual collapse.