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How 50 reporters exposed the World Bank’s broken promises

From confronting Honduran Army officers to wrangling huge datasets, ICIJ and its partners approached the World Bank investigation as team.

At a military camp in a violence-stained region of Central America, a Honduran Army officer informed Sasha Chavkin that he knew the reporter’s itinerary – where Chavkin was going and the people he planned to interview. When Chavkin asked how he had acquired this information, the colonel said simply: “Yo soy un militar.” (“I am a military man.”)

In Kenya’s western highlands, rifle-toting officers from the Kenya Forest Service confronted Anthony Langat and Jacob Kushner as the Nairobi-based reporters tried to interview indigenous peoples who claimed forest rangers had burned them out of their homes. The officers questioned the reporters for nearly an hour, refusing to say whether they were under arrest.

Along the Gulf of Kutch, a manager for one of India’s largest coal-powered plants, flanked by security guards, confronted Barry Yeoman, a freelance magazine journalist: Who was he and what was he doing at the fishing settlement near the plant? When Yeoman tried to sidestep the questions, one of the guards said they already knew who he was: “Aren’t you with ICIJ?”

These kinds of encounters aren’t unusual when it comes to boots-in-the-mud foreign reporting. What’s different is that all these journalists were working together, on the same story, as a part of a reporting partnership involving more than 50 journalists led by ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Their subject: How power plants, dams and other big projects bankrolled by the World Bank can harm people and the environment.

Mundra, Gujarat, IndiaOver the course of a decade, the reporting team found, projects financed by the World Bank physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people. These vulnerable people, often among the poorest in their societies, were forced from their homes, lost land or other assets or saw their livelihoods damaged. During this period, the investigation found, the bank regularly failed to follow its own rules for protecting the people living in the path of development.

To show the human consequences of the bank’s investments, reporters from ICIJ, The Huffington Post and more than 20 other ICIJ media partners reported on the ground in 14 countries. They traveled to isolated villages and urban slums in the Balkans, Asia, Africa and Latin America. They entered areas bloodied by civil conflicts. And they asked tough questions in places where journalists are often watched, questioned and, in some instances, targeted for violence or arrest.

“What connects a lot of the work on the investigation is that people were reporting in places where the local authorities are heavily invested in controversial projects,” says Ben Hallman, an editor and reporter for HuffPost who traveled to the mountains of Peru as a part of the investigation. “These places tend to have weak rule of law, and essentially the system that exists is opposed to you getting out the story. There’s definitely a chilling effect.”

ICIJ is a non-profit news organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. We have a full-time staff of 11 in the U.S., Europe and Latin America and 190 member journalists in 65 countries who team with us on cross-border reporting collaborations.

At ICIJ, we operate on the principle that many stories are too big, too complicated and too global for a lone-wolf muckraker – or even a single news organization – to tackle.

That’s certainly the case with the reporting team’s World Bank Group investigation, which focuses on a sprawling organization with more than 10,000 employees and a PR operation that works hard to deflect negative coverage.

The World Bank Group is owned by 188 member countries, with the U.S. and a few other Western nations holding much of the voting power. It funnels money to governments and corporations with the goal, it says, of ending extreme poverty.

Its push to end poverty is complicated by the reality that dams and other game-changing projects can make things worse rather than better for people nearby. People forced to resettle because of big projects often end up poorer than before. Some face hunger and disease. Even when people aren’t evicted from their homes, projects can destroy or damage their livelihoods. A dam that changes a river flow, for example, can drastically reduce catches for fishing communities.

The World Bank’s “safeguard” rules are supposed to protect people whose lives are disrupted by its investments. Families pushed from their homes must be provided new homes. People whose ability to earn a living has been damaged must get help to restore or replace their livelihoods.

The bank often fails to enforce these rules.  In some cases, the World Bank and its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have financed governments or companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture.

In Kenya, for example, indigenous people claim they have been burned out of their homes and evicted from ancestral forests by a World Bank-funded forest conservation program.

“I don’t understand why they chase us like this,” Selly Rotich, a mother of five, told Langat and Kushner in September as she sat outside her scorched home in Kenya’s Embobut Forest.

Putting together the team

Sasha Chavkin reporting in HondurasThe investigation began when Chavkin, an ICIJ staff reporter, noticed a pattern of complaints from communities around the globe that claimed they had been hurt by World Bank projects.

Chavkin spent a month doing an “investigative sniff” — poring over written complaints and interviewing experts. He found enough promising leads that ICIJ’s editors decided to launch a full investigation.

The next step: putting together a team.

To be part of a ICIJ project, journalists and their news organizations must agree to share information with other media outlets and hold off releasing their stories so that everyone can publish or broadcast together — an arrangement that often goes against journalists’ ingrained instincts.

These days news organizations have begun to see the benefits of pooling reporting resources and creating a higher profile for stories by publishing jointly. But investigative collaborations are never easy. They require planning, communication and casting off traditions that have little to do with the quality of reporting and writing.

The golden rule for collaboration is simple: the more you give, the more you get back.

One of the keys to pulling off a joint venture by multiple news outlets is picking the right partners — both news organizations and individual journalists. As Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ’s deputy director, advises: “Avoid massive-ego and high-maintenance types — the work you are doing is already hard enough.”

Some media organizations define collaboration narrowly: “Give us your data, we’ll do the story and give you some credit.” We don’t want to work with them. We look for partners that will swap information during the reporting process, share photos and graphics and coordinate crucial interviews and information requests.

The golden rule for collaboration is simple: the more you give, the more you get back.

Once publication day nears, individual news organizations can take more control, writing stories that best serve their own audiences and deciding whether to run any of the stories produced directly by ICIJ.

For the World Bank project, we first sought teammates among our regular media partners. Among the first to come on board were German public broadcasters WDR and NDR, German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Swiss newspapers SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche, Nigeria’s Premium Times and Belgian newsmagazine MO*.

We also reached out to HuffPost, which agreed to join the project as an all-in partner, reporting and writing stories hand-in-hand with ICIJ and publishing them on a shared microsite with video, photos and interactive graphics. Two U.S. journalism nonprofits — the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and The GroundTruth Project — pitched in with funding for stories and travel and provided crucial editing help. Other outlets — including Fusion, Spain’s El Pais and Agência Pública, a non-profit investigative reporting center in Brazil — joined as the investigation progressed.

Data sifting

One of the biggest challenges for collaborative investigations is digging through publicly available data to find what’s there and what it means. Large institutions often don’t do a good job of collecting or releasing information that allows outsiders to hold them accountable. 

ICIJ’s data journalists worked to answer a basic question: How many people have been physically or economically displaced by projects sponsored by the bank over the past decade? 

The bank told us it didn’t know. 

The bank’s reports on individual projects didn’t keep track, in any consistent way, of the number of people harmed by the bank’s investments. There was no way to do an automated search. Instead, ICIJ data journalist Cécile Schilis-Gallego spent 11 months going through more than 6,000 documents in four different languages to find the information. 

ICIJ engaged the bank over a period of months about our data analysis. At one point the bank argued that estimating the total number of people displaced by the projects it financed would be “potentially misleading and unlikely to enhance our work on this important issue.”


On the ground

As data journalists were wrestling with the World Bank’s weak record-keeping system, team members traveling to World Bank project sites faced barriers of language and geography.

In Uganda, radio reporter Jeanne Baron needed a translator who could speak four distinct local dialects and a driver who could navigate rutted roads to reach families who claim a corporate agriculture project funded by the bank’s private-sector arm kicked them off their farms. Agência Pública’s Ciro Barros  traveled 3,000 kilometers to interview people displaced by World Bank-financed dams in Brazil’s arid northeast, making the last legs of their trips perched atop “paus-de-arara,” crowded and rickety flatbed trucks that locals use to get from place to place.

At a government-built relocation village called Gameleira, farm families told Barros that their new home didn’t have enough water, even as water was being piped to urban areas from the World Bank-backed dam and reservoir that displaced them. “We feel that we are suffering so that people from the city can have water,” 39-year-old farmer Francisco Venílson dos Santos, said. “They abandoned us here.” (The World Bank says the villagers were provided adequate access to water in their new location.)

Reporters in the field took steps to protect themselves and their subjects from the risks of government and corporate intervention.

HuffPost’s Hallman, who reported on a gold mine in Peru backed by the World Bank’s private-sector arm, used his iPhone to photograph the pages of his reporting notebook and emailed them to himself at every available opportunity, for fear it would be confiscated by local authorities. A few weeks before his visit, Peruvian police had detained a foreign journalist for 14 hours after the reporter tried to interview a woman who is battling the mine over ownership of the land where her family lives.

To win the trust of fearful mine opponents, Hallman relied on the negotiating skills of his reporting partner — Roxana Olivera, a Canadian of Peruvian heritage who is well-known in the country as a dogged human rights investigative reporter.

After Barry Yeoman was questioned by a manager for a World Bank Group-financed coal-fired power plant in northwest India, his contacts told him that local police were asking about him and that he might get a visit from them at his hotel room. Yeoman took a two-day break from reporting, avoiding the fishing settlements where residents say they’ve been hurt by the power plant.

Colonel Rene JovelWhen ICIJ’s Chavkin and other team members visited the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras, they took a different tack. They made a point of meeting with Col. Rene Jovel, the commander of a military operation with orders to stabilize an area where peasant farmers had come into conflict with a palm-oil producer financed by the World Bank’s business-lending unit.

In his one-room headquarters, where a wheezing air conditioner battled the sweltering heat, Jovel warned the reporters that peasants were planning to provoke violence during their visit to draw international attention. He told Chavkin he had sent soldiers to the Paso Aguán plantation to head off an attempted occupation. He said he could not guarantee the reporters’ safety if they visited a nearby village.

Later that day, on the way to the village, Chavkin and other team members passed two trucks full of soldiers headed in the opposite direction, speeding away from the embattled community. When they arrived, the reporters found few signs that peasants were planning a violent confrontation. The men sat in lawn chairs, showed photographs of their scars from previous evictions by the military, and complained that they were “humiliated inside our own homes without being able to go out.”   

Langat and Kushner stepped into another tense situation when they visited Kenya’s Cherangani Hills in September. They spotted two gutted, smoldering homes and several fences still burning. Residents said forest rangers had set the fires hours before. Human rights advocates claim Kenyan authorities have used a World Bank-funded conservation project as a pretext for pushing the Sengwer, an indigenous group, from their homes.

When the two reporters returned the next day, nine forest rangers confronted them. They wanted to know why the reporters were talking to the Sengwer.

When Kushner and Langat asked the rangers if they had set fire to Sengwer homes the day before, one ranger responded that the reporters were being misled.

“How do you know that they are not burning their own houses?” he asked. Several of the forest rangers grinned.

After almost an hour of back and forth with the rangers, Kushner slowly walked away, into the forest, to see if they would follow him or take him into custody. Langat and photographer Tony Karumba soon followed, and the rangers let them go on with their reporting.

Bank’s admission

Forest rangers KenyaFor months, the reporting team sought to interview senior World Bank officials to discuss the findings of the emerging investigation. In late February, we emailed bank officials a detailed list of questions, with the hope of finally getting a response.

Our questions informed the bank that the reporting team had found “systemic gaps” in the bank’s compliance with its own rules for protecting people from harm. We also noted that we had obtained a copy of a secret 2014 audit that raised questions about the bank’s commitment to enforcing those rules.

Five days later, the World Bank provided answers in an unexpectedly public way.

On March 4, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim held a press conference in which he admitted “major problems” with the bank’s safeguards practices. “We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern,” he said.

The bank released an “action plan” that it said would address the failings.

The World Bank denies that the team’s reporting was the impetus for the bank’s admission and reform plan. But the timeline speaks for itself — and NGOs that track the World Bank say they believe our investigation forced the bank’s hand.

Hade, KosovoICIJ, HuffPost and other media partners released the first stories in the series April 16, and have continued to publish and broadcast stories since then. The most recent article — a look at the World Bank’s role in the relocation of a village in Kosovo’s coalfields — published June 19.

More than 100 media outlets have run the team’s World Bank stories or written or broadcast about them, including NPR, the BBC and publications in Turkey, the UAE, Morocco, the Philippines, Chile and the Netherlands.

HuffPost’s Hallman says publishing as a part of a collaboration goes against the grain of scoop-your-competitors traditions of investigative reporting, but it has value because it can expand reach of stories that often struggle to find an audience.

“International news doesn’t get much attention unless it involves ISIS or some other immediate crisis,” he says. “We’re trying to draw readers to an investigation about the plight of poor people in distant corners of the globe. You can do that with compelling storytelling, but it also helps a lot to have stories run in as many places as possible.”

ICIJ, HuffPost and other partners will continue publishing stories about the World Bank throughout 2015.

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