Do-No-Harm Development

PARIS – International financial institutions, including the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and other regional development and investment banks, have increasingly emphasized the importance of participation, good governance, and accountability in the countries where they disburse funds. Added scrutiny from these institutions is welcome, because development finance can be a powerful tool for safeguarding human rights, so long as the communities it most affects have a say in how it is put to use.

Unfortunately, while there is a surge in new development financing around the world, especially in energy and infrastructure projects, there is also an uptick in efforts by governments to restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly. In this environment, when human-rights defenders speak out, they often come under threat. By one count, activists were threatened in more than 109 countries in 2015.

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Why would members of a community that receives development aid object to it? In many cases, they do so because investments undertaken in the name of development can disrupt the actual needs of local populations, are imposed against the population’s will, can expose members of the affected community to serious human-rights risks, and can damage the local ecosystem.

For example, the Inter-American Development Bank is co-financier in a wind farm project in Oaxaca, Mexico. When indigenous leaders of Oaxaca’s local fishing community complained that the new facilities would have a negative impact on their source of income and way of life, they were subjected to acts of intimidation, judicial prosecutions, and physical attacks.

In another example, Pastor Omot Agwa was hired as a local interpreter to assist the World Bank’s independent complaint body in an investigation of allegations that the government was using World Bank funds to evict indigenous peoples forcibly from their traditional lands. The government arrested Agwa in September 2015 on dubious charges under a counterterrorism law, and he is still detained today. Meanwhile, the World Bank continues to fund government projects in Ethiopia.

In a recent report, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch documents repeated cases of individuals and communities affected by projects financed by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation who have stood up to defend their rights, only to suffer an array of abuses for doing so. These include threats, intimidation, detention, sexual harassment, and violent attacks by governments, corporations, security forces, or other third parties with a stake in where aid funds end up.

According to the investigative group Global Witness, an average of more than three environmental activists were killed per week in 2015 while defending their lands, territories, and resources against externally funded projects. As Global Witness makes clear, the presence of development aid in many of these projects allows for interested parties, such as governments and corporations, to demonize environmental defenders as “anti-development” and therefore unpatriotic.

Given the direct role development can play in exacerbating human-rights conditions in areas it affects, it is incumbent upon distributors of aid to stop the cycle of violence. Fortunately, there is already movement in this direction. More than 100 civil-society organizations from around the world have launched a campaign to urge development finance institutions and their shareholder governments to respect human rights in their projects, promote an environment for safe participation in development processes, and ensure that their investments do not put human-rights defenders at risk.

But success will require action from the banks. For starters, development financiers must follow a do-no-harm principle: regardless of its potential economic benefits, development should never jeopardize people’s lives and basic human rights.

This means that aid must be conditional on binding commitments from the recipients to respect rights, protect human-rights defenders, and ensure that new projects are not causing or contributing to abuses against indigenous peoples, such as forced evictions or labor-rights violations. For example, aid financiers should require that security forces hired to oversee a project, or who respond to project-related protests, are properly trained and strictly observe international standards on managing public assemblies.

In my upcoming report to the United Nations General Assembly I advocate for a “zero-tolerance approach” to killings and violent acts against environmental human-rights defenders. Development banks must therefore establish effective measures and protocols to empower defenders and respond to any threats or crackdowns against individuals or civil-society organizations defending human rights in connection with development activities. They should emphasize that transparency, participation, and consultation are not only integral to human rights, but also strengthen the development process. A safe and enabling environment for sustainable development must allow people to criticize the process without fear of reprisal, and most projects will benefit in the long run if they are accepted, if not fully endorsed, by directly affected communities.

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Because recipient governments and corporations rely on international financial institutions not just for money, but also for technical assistance and policy advice, these institutions are well positioned to change the culture of development to allow for a safer and more productive process.

Several of these institutions’ complaint bodies, including those of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the Inter-American Development Bank, are currently developing guidelines on how to protect complainants. This is encouraging, but the institutions themselves must now see the process through to show that they are serious about their human-rights obligations and their responsibility to those on the front lines of development. After all, development is supposed to help, not harm.