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Involuntary resettlements: And then, the World Bank stopped counting

One displaced person. . . two displaced people. . . 2. 5 million displaced people… and at some point the World Bank stopped counting. At least this is what the disclosed results of two World Bank internal audits  on its “Involuntary Resettlement Portfolio” suggest. The exercise included reviews of projects the Bank financed between 1990-2010 that caused forced displacement and resettlement.

Among other things the audit revealed that the number of projects triggering the Bank’s resettlement policy increased over 400 per cent in the last two decades – from 8 per cent of the Bank’s portfolio in 1993 to 29 per cent in 2009. And this figure is set to rise to 41 per cent of the portfolio with the projects currently in the Bank’s pipeline. In the vast majority of projects, the Bank failed to find out what happened to the people it displaced, let alone ensure they were left no worse off, as required by the Bank’s operational policies and procedures. While previous audits of resettlement practices at the Bank were able to estimate the number of people affected (750,000 in the 1985 review, 2.5 million in the 1993 review), the recently unveiled audits were unable to even estimate a figure.  Only 204 out of 747 active projects provided information about the number of people affected.  Of those, 3 million people were estimated to be affected.  Yet for the other 545 projects, the Bank cannot tell how many people were displaced and if any them were compensated and resettled. The second audit examined a sample of the small minority of projects for which resettlement planning had actually occurred.   This one concludes that: “the sizeable gaps in information point to significant potential failures in the Bank’s system for dealing with resettlement.”  

Even among this atypical sample of only 59 projects, the “status of physically displaced persons was not known…in 61% of projects that caused relocation.”

The audit found little information about whether affected people had been consulted on resettlement plans – one of the most fundamental rights of people facing eviction.  Project documents “described plans for consultation, but aide-mémoires provided very little information about what was actually done during implementation. They seldom stated who had been consulted, on what issues, and what consultation and participation had achieved.” More importantly, the audit found no evidence of a functioning grievance redress mechanism – a basic requirement of the Bank’s resettlement policy – in nearly half of the projects reviewed.

The findings bear obvious relevance to the World Bank’s ongoing process to “streamline” its environmental and social safeguards and to its announced plans to double lending. World Bank President Mr. Jim Kim reportedly acknowledged that the number of people subject to resettlements would rise significantly as the institution seeks to meet a “dramatic increase” in requests for help to fund dams and other infrastructure projects in developing countries.

But the Bank sat on these audits for more than nine months after completion. Why? According to critics, the release was conveniently timed to fall three days after closing the second round of consultations on the proposed new Environmental and Social Framework.

To respond to the findings of the audit, the World Bank released a four-page Action Plan which, irony of ironies, includes a promise to rely on the new draft Environmental and Social Framework. While the outcome of the revision of the safeguards may have been unclear a couple of years ago, there is no room for confusion now that it will be a massive dilution of the Bank’s existing safeguard policies and procedures.

A letter Inclusive Development International and other organizations are planning to submit to the World Bank questions whether the Action Plan will be effective at addressing the numerous and serious failings surfaced by the audits. It argues, among other things, that the Action Plan “is not commensurate with the extent of systematic violations by Bank staff and borrowers of the Bank’s existing policy and procedures on involuntary resettlement.“

The author wants to thank Inclusive Development International for providing the raw information used on this blog. Click here to submit a signature to the letter (organizational signatures only are received until Friday April 10 2015).

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