International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

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Debate surrounds World Bank's proposed new safeguards rules

World Bank protesters.

Human rights groups charge that the World Bank’s newly released plan for revamping its social and environmental policies is a “dangerous setback” for vulnerable populations in the path of big projects financed by the bank.

The proposed rules would shift enforcement responsibilities from the World Bank to its borrowers while adding new protections for workers, indigenous peoples and other communities.

A coalition of advocacy groups – including Human Rights Watch and the Forest Peoples Programme – complain that the bank’s proposed plan would replace “clear time-bound requirements with vague language, loopholes, flexible principles and reliance upon ‘borrower systems’ instead of Bank safeguards.”

The World Bank declined to answer detailed questions from ICIJ about the new policies, stating that it could not address specific provisions because it was still in the middle of internal deliberations.  A bank spokeswoman said the goals of the rewrite were to “increase coverage, social inclusion, and harmonization across the Bank group; enhance client capacity, responsibility and ownership; [and] strengthen safeguards supervision, monitoring, evaluation to ensure rigorous implementation of our policies.” 

The rules are expected to receive final approval from the bank’s governing board on Aug. 4.

ICIJ reviewed the new safeguards policies and spoke to experts to assess the most significant revisions, and how the bank’s claims and civil society criticisms stack up against the text of the policy. Here are five of the most important ways in which the World Bank’s safeguards are expected to change:

1) Shifting responsibility to borrowers

One of the most sweeping changes in the bank’s approach is its increased reliance on client governments to enforce its social and environmental standards when they use World Bank money to build dams, run conservation projects or carry out other major initiatives. Instead of following the bank’s guidelines, borrowers will be able to use their own laws, policies and regulations to protect vulnerable populations as long as the bank determines that these systems achieve “objectives materially consistent” with its own rules. 

Human rights groups and other civil society organizations see this change as a fundamental rollback of the bank’s protections.

“The Bank has effectively dismantled thirty years of environmental and social protections for the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable peoples,” said Stephanie Fried of the Ulu Foundation, a U.S.-based environmental organization.

Former bank officials defended the new strategy as a pragmatic response to a changing world.

“The only way that safeguards that will work is if countries take this on board,” said Anis Dani, a former senior evaluator at the bank’s Internal Evaluation Group, who has returned to the bank as a consultant after retiring in 2014. “The bank no longer has the leverage to thrust this down the throats of countries like China and India and even in Africa.”

Dani said the bank was recognizing the reality that its future influence lay in persuasion and capacity building rather than enforcement.

“The incentive is not going to be policing,” Dani said. “I don’t think we can dictate terms from here anymore. It’s a different world.”

2) New protections for workers and indigenous peoples

The proposed rules include a new safeguard for labor and working conditions, a category that does not exist under the current system. The policy bans child labor and forced labor, discrimination in the workplace and seeks to promote collective bargaining rights and occupational health and safety within the limits of borrower countries’ laws.

The rule protecting indigenous peoples has been updated to include the principle of free, prior and informed consent, which requires that indigenous groups provide “collective support” in order for a project that displaces them or damages their lands, natural resources or cultural heritage to go forward.  An indigenous community’s support does not need to be unanimous in these cases, raising concerns that factions of communities could be co-opted to give their blessing to controversial development projects.

The indigenous peoples rule also has been expanded to include “Sub-Saharan African Historically Underserved Traditional Local Communities” – a nod to the sensitivities of African governments that say that recognizing indigenous peoples would undermine legal equality among ethnic groups. In June, ICIJ reported that the bank granted a waiver from the Indigenous Peoples policy to the government of Tanzania, which objects to classifying tribes such as the Maasai and Barabaig as “indigenous.” 

The new policy would require the same protections to apply to these groups regardless of what their governments call them – but its protections would be voided in cases in which the bank decides to waive it. 

3) Resettlement plans no longer required for project approval

The bank has scrapped its requirement that borrowers prepare a plan detailing compensation and resettlement of displaced communities in order for a project to be approved. Instead, resettlement plans must be developed before any physical or economic displacement occurs.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.Last year, ICIJ and its partners reported that World Bank projects had physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people over the last decade, and that the bank had regularly failed to enforce its protections for these communities. The bank vowed that it “must and will do better” to protect communities displaced by its projects.

Paul Cadario, a former senior manager at the World Bank who teaches civil engineering at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said that eliminating this requirement creates a basic flaw in the project planning process.

“I don’t think you can design something without determining how many people’s properties you’re taking,” Cadario said. “I teach a class on this at University of Toronto, and I can’t imagine that a client would get away with saying we’ll do this as we implement it. It’s not how things work today.”

The bank has maintained that its new approach reflects the reality that complex infrastructure projects such as roads and power lines may not specify their exact route, and thus the extent of displacement, at the time of their approval.

4) More supervision over the lifetime of projects

The World Bank has added new procedures to supervise compliance with safeguards throughout the duration of projects.  These include a required monitoring plan to track environmental and social impacts of all projects, and for projects that displace people, an external audit of completed resettlement plans that will propose corrective actions for objectives that have not been achieved.

“At least on paper, the new policy is very clear: you don’t stop the day the project is approved,” said Dani, the former evaluator at the bank’s Internal Evaluation Group. “You continue through the life of the project.”

Last year, days after ICIJ informed the bank that it had found “systemic gaps” in its protection for people displaced by its projects, the bank announced an action plan that it said would address its longstanding failures to properly enforce its rules on resettlement and other safeguards. The plan emphasized greater monitoring and oversight over the duration of projects to ensure that the rules were being followed. 

“If there’s one thing you hear from bank staff and their managers, it’s that supervision has been underfunded for a long time,” said Cadario, the former senior manager at the bank. “Until I see the money and until I see the resources, I would be concerned that the bank isn’t going to deliver the supervisory intensity that is necessary to see that the safeguards are absolutely complied with.”

ICIJ reported last December that the bank had established a dedicated new budget for safeguards enforcement and added 11 new safeguards specialists, although the results of these changes have yet to be determined.

5) Human rights and sexual orientation left out

There were two notable omissions from the proposed new safeguards: human rights and protections based on sexual orientation.

The bank has come under fierce criticism for its human rights record in recent years. Last year the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights declared the bank “a human rights-free zone” that “treats human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligations.” An ICIJ investigation published last year documented evidence that some World Bank borrowers had committed human rights abuses in the course of bank-financed development projects but continued to receive funding from the bank.

The new policy mentions in a broad vision statement that “the World Bank’s activities support the realization of human rights,” but does not include human rights protections in the text of its obligations for borrowers.

“In refusing to acknowledge its rights obligations once again, the World Bank anticipates it will be able to violate human rights without consequence,” said Jessica Evans, a senior financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The new rules have also dropped references to protections based on sexual orientation, which had been included in previous drafts of the policy.  A draft “Directive” that accompanies the safeguards mentions sexual orientation and gender identity as defining categories of vulnerable groups, but there are no explicit mentions of LGBTQ rights within the bank’s new standards.

“It is deeply disappointing that the Bank chose to side with anti-LGBTQ voices who wanted to roll back potential human rights protections, rather than standing up for human rights and the dignity of all people,” Ty Cobb of the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.

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