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'Nowhere to go:' evicted woman confronts World Bank watchdog

Bimbo Osobe, Washington, D.C.

Forced displacement is one of the most common and intractable harms experienced by communities affected by World Bank projects, and the bank has repeatedly failed to properly plan for resettlement, a new report by its internal watchdog the Inspection Panel has found. 

The report was released on April 12 at a forum marked by sharp exchanges that underscored the continuing disconnect between bank officials and communities displaced by development.

The report, which analyzed 22 years of complaints to the Inspection Panel by communities alleging they were harmed by bank projects, found that more than two thirds of the grievances investigated by the panel involved resettlement.

In most of these cases, the World Bank underestimated the risks caused by displacement, the panel found. The report praised the bank for clarifying and improving its resettlement policies in response to Inspection Panel findings. 

The panel’s mixed message contrasted with an anguished rebuke to the bank by Bimbo Osobe, a former resident of a slum neighborhood in Lagos that was demolished in February 2013 during a World Bank urban renewal project.

“I was having a home before the project came into my community, now I do not have a home,” said Osobe, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with the nonprofit Justice & Empowerment Initiatives to confront the World Bank. “And I am one out of ten thousand people who were displaced.”

“Up to today many of us are still sleeping outside,” she told the panel. “Our children are outside. They are not going to school. Most of our women are prone to rape because they are sleeping outside.”

Bimbo Osobe, NigeriaOsobe’s story was featured in ICIJ’s Evicted and Abandoned investigation, which found that an estimated 3.4 million people had been physically or economically displaced by World Bank projects over the previous decade. The bank often failed to follow its own standards for resettling and protecting the wellbeing of these communities, the reporting team found.

Maninder Gill, a senior bank official who oversees its resettlement policies, told the panel that the bank was still “far behind where we should be” in assisting displaced communities and urged community and civil society members to work together with the bank to improve results.

But Gill stressed the progress he said the bank had made in improving its resettlement practices, which he contrasted with the findings of a 1994 review of projects involving displacement.

“When we did the resettlement review in 1994 we found that less than 50 percent of projects had resettlement plans,” Gill said. “Now, at least, all projects have plans.”

Gill’s assertion prompted a sharp retort from Michael Cernea, the creator of the bank’s resettlement policy who oversaw its implementation for nearly two decades.

“When you say all projects have a resettlement plan, that is false,” Cernea said.

Cernea noted the bank’s increasing reliance on vague “resettlement policy frameworks,” documents in which borrowers commit to the bank’s resettlement policies without pledging specific actions or budgets. The bank says it produces these frameworks when the resettlement impact of a project is unknown at the time the projects are submitted to the World Bank board for approval.

An ICIJ analysis found that from 2004 to 2013, most projects that the World Bank deemed likely to cause resettlement were approved with only resettlement policy frameworks, while less than a third had full resettlement action plans. The World Bank has maintained that many of the projects that it approved without action plans did not end up displacing people, but acknowledged that it often could not document what happened in these cases.

Osobe and her neighbors in the Badia East slum were among the communities that were in fact forced from their homes.

“There is no provision whatsoever, there was no resettlement action plan put in place before we were displaced,” she told the bank officials seated on the panel. “And up to today we have nowhere to go.”

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