World Bank president admits resettlement failures: ‘What we found causes me deep concern’

Under pressure, the World Bank has conceded that its resettlement policies are flawed. This must be the moment for change, argues Ryan Schlief

 Jim Yong Kim
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim at a recent climate change conference. He admits that the recent findings on resettlement cause him ‘deep concern’. Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters

The World Bank last week admitted publicly it had no idea how many people may have been forced off their land or lost their jobs due to its projects. The Bank also did not know whether these people were compensated fairly, on time or at all.

“We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern,” said World Bank group president Jim Yong Kim. “We found several major problems. One is that we haven’t done a good enough job in overseeing projects involving resettlement; two, we haven’t implemented those plans well enough; and three, we haven’t put in place strong tracking systems to make sure that our policies were being followed. We must and will do better.”

In internal documents now made public, the World Bank admitted its own failures to understand, monitor and deliver even on its most basic policies. A review of 59 projects where resettlement was anticipated found that “a disturbingly large number of projects had insufficient data available to allow evaluation, and thus received ‘Don’t Know’ ratings.” The status of people physically displaced was unknown for 61% of the projects and in most of these there was “little or no information about the replacement housing or what had happened to the relocated people.”

Of the 37 projects with resettlement plans that included measures to address the needs of indigenous peoples and vulnerable persons, more than half did not document any implementation at all. Even fewer discussed the effectiveness of the measures they reportedly did implement. The report concludes: “It is troubling that more projects were designated ‘Don’t Know’ than were rated; more often than not there was insufficient information to allow a rating … In general, the implementation of measures for indigenous peoples and vulnerable persons is one of the weakest areas of reporting in project documentation. While documentation was generally weak, the information provided … points to poor implementation.”

On the question of whether or not the incomes and livelihood of those displaced had been restored, there was insufficient information to include 56% of the projects sampled. In one particular project, where female-headed families should have been provided with job opportunities, no effort had been made and no explanation was given for the failure to do so.

As the International Accountability Project (IAP) and our partners have seen countless times in many countries, the current focus of development is often purely on the end product itself and the purported economic benefit to a few. These projects are conceived, designed and funded by a very small number of people – often people who have never set foot in the country, let alone have spoken with those in the community itself.

It is rare for those who will be affected – whether positively or negatively – to be involved throughout. In fact, they often don’t even find out what’s happening until after the project is already set into motion. And now there is further confirmation that those funding projects that should improve the lives of people have not been keeping track of what happens to those affected by their own projects.

In an upcoming report by IAP and our global advocacy team, in which 800 people in eight countries who have been affected by development were surveyed, even when governments and funders promise to improve their lives, 77% reported no benefit from the project. Of the few who received some compensation or assistance to move from their homes, only 8% said their lives had improved for the better. A climate of fear limits 67% of respondents from fully participating in any government-led consultations, if these consultations happen at all. The reality for many facing development can be quite grim – more than 84% of those surveyed have been or will be displaced by a development project – many by force. In fact, 26% report physical violence was used to force them to move from their homes and land.

Alongside the release of these internal reports, the World Bank shared an ambitious plan to address its significant shortcomings on resettlement, including the establishment of more effective internal systems for monitoring, reporting and evaluation; more trained staff to measure potential human and environmental impacts; and additional support for community consultations and local grievance mechanisms.

These changes are needed but what is clearly missing for this ambitious plan are the people who could benefit or suffer from the projects, the plans for which are being dreamt up far away and often without the knowledge of those who will be most affected. In our upcoming report, those surveyed present innovative ideas on how they can be part of the development process by identifying and sharing their own development priorities and plans and by providing input on design and implementation through community-led consultations and monitoring practices. And they have the research to back up their recommendations. Unfortunately 94% of those surveyed in our study have never been invited to share their development ideas and plans with their government.

But, what if those designing and funding development actually lived in the communities nearest to the project? What if they and their families had to benefit or suffer personally – how would their work be different?

While there are likely thousands who are missing from the World Bank internal assessment, they are not invisible and are not merely numbers to be counted, weighed and measured. What lies behind these numbers are people. People who have the similar hopes and aspirations as you and I – to have a home within their community and to thrive. If it is unclear what has happened to them – positively or negatively – how can we be certain that the goals of the World Bank, or any development project for that matter, will actually improve lives and end poverty?

The report Back to Development – A Call For What Development Could Be has been released in English, Spanish and Arabic in the eight countries where the community-led research was carried out. You can read an exclusive extract on GDPN here.

Ryan Schlief is the executive director of the International Accountability Project. Follow @4accountability on Twitter.