The year was 2011….
I still possess vivid memories of a community meeting in Kiboga district organized by Uganda Land Alliance and Oxfam to document experiences of people who had been forcefully evicted from their land by the New Forest Company (NFC) for commercial tree planting with funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Standing before the people who had gathered to share their experiences, you could only read despair through their pensive look.
Joseph, an elder and their leader narrated their ordeal till he suddenly broke down, overwhelmed by memories of the traumatic experiences they had endured. For a moment, a deafening silence pierced through the gathering and almost immediately followed by the uncontrollable sobs of more than two hundred people. I was left in a daze as I struggled to comprehend what the people had gone through at the hands of those supposed to protect them.
Prior to their eviction, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces, our national army, working with the New Forest Company, had burnt their houses leaving two children dead, slashed down plantations, killed their animals and put community leaders in jail, leaving others to wander in search of a new life. At the time of our visit, eighteen months had passed since they had been evicted and it was evident that they were a torn people. School going girls had been married off, old people had died because they could not handle the stress of starting over, men had resorted to using drugs to cope and the women carried the entire burden of managing homes.
It took our team some time to calm the people down, document their experiences and later reach out to the IFC’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman (CAO) to have the community’s concerns addressed. This is just one out of many communities that have had to endure such treatment in the name of development.
With this experience, I longed to interact with the World Bank’s grievance mechanism for I was convinced that they had reasons to justify continued funding for investments that violate human rights. An invitation to attend the World Bank Annual gathering was that opportunity and it coincided with the review of the Bank’s Environmental and Social Safeguard policies.
With all the enthusiasm, I paced from one meeting to another listening to submissions from Bank staff, government officials, representatives of civil society and affected communities. By the end of the week, I had a clearer understanding of the bank’s mode of operation and was very certain that communities’ redemption could never come from it.
Presentations of cases of rights violations in Guatemala, India, Philippines, Egypt and other countries were met with responses like; “that’s why we are here consulting so that the revised safeguards can reduce such occurrences” and “It’s a learning process.” It was quite unnerving thinking of decades of learning without acting upon rights violations manifesting the same way wherever the Bank invests. Many responses seemed rehearsed and ended with; “We are going to see how we can incorporate that in the draft document” leaving no means of holding the Bank accountable to such commitments. Such loose statements and commitments were in total contrast to the Bank’s mission statement that reads thus;
“The World Bank Group aims to fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results – to help people help themselves and their environments by producing resources, sharing knowledge, building capacity, and forging partnerships in the public and private sector”
This attitude for a moment burnt out the zeal I had to meet and present the voice of the people that they claim to help “fight poverty with passion and professionalism.”
It was evident throughout the cases presented that community struggles with the investors were aggravated by the national governments that would let security operatives quell any dissenting voices. The justice system would also be undermined as communities possessing court injunctions to halt evictions would still be forcefully thrown off their land. Hope for redress for such acts lay with the bank’s intervention through its safeguard policies which, to my dismay, are being diluted in the ongoing review process to provide for delegation of responsibility to borrowers by relying on national laws and regulations. Equally contentious is the provision for countries to “opt out” of applying the safeguard for indigenous peoples if the borrower is concerned that the process of identifying groups or peoples as indigenous would “create a serious risk of exacerbating ethnic tension or civil strife, or where the identification of culturally-distinct groups as envisioned in [the safeguard] is inconsistent with the provisions of the national constitution”.
As an activist, this was my break and make point! The bank’s lackluster effort in ensuring that borrowers adhere to upholding human rights served to confirm that they indeed condone such acts and are by no means yet to change. On the flipside, it served as an opportunity to look within our communities to seek for the change we desire. It’s time to step back and address investment induced rights violations from the position of the victims and not the perpetrators. Exploiting local knowledge and the power of the masses can position communities to work with the investors and their national governments as inevitable allies in a bid to advance the development cause. There can never be a guarantee that all will be well especially given the competing interests but the overarching principle is the appreciation that communities have a role to play in their development and that violation of their rights with impunity has no place in contemporary society. It’s only just to note that in this pursuit, “All is fair in love and war”