Harare — On paper, most development banks are dedicated to upholding communities’ rights to consultation and involvement in making decisions on projects that have an impact on their daily lives. But when those who oppose, criticise, or voice concerns about development efforts are targeted for abuse just for speaking out, it is impossible for them to engage in meaningful involvement.
This is according to Wearing Blinders: How development banks are ignoring reprisal risks, a study published by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development in June 2022, which exposes how development banks are often failing to identify, assess and mitigate reprisal risks. The coalition is an international umbrella group of more than 100 civil society groups.
By definition, a development financial institution, also known as a development bank or development finance company, provides risk capital for economic development projects on a non-commercial basis. Although they are meant to assist countries to grow and develop, sometimes they actually put local people at risk, even to the point of endangering people’s lives.
In Uganda, a project funded by the World Bank in 2021 was intended to help people manage their neighbourhoods sustainably and adjust to the effects of Covid-19. But the coalition’s study shows how at one site, the Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve, the funding was granted to an agency – the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) – which local people distrusted, and whose rangers have attacked community members, leading to at least 29 deaths.
At the time the grant was made, indigenous people had been displaced from their land during past conflicts, and barred from regaining it by the UWA. Ugandan human rights defender Gerald Kankya is director of the Twerwaneho Listeners Club, which works closely with the affected communities.
He told a Strive podcast discussion that although the World Bank’s 2021 project “was intended to support local communities improve livelihoods, unfortunately, the project faced resistance from the communities.”
This was because the bank failed to conduct the due diligence necessary to understand the implications the project would have for the communities, as well as the reputation of the UWA as the authority implementing the project, he added. The intended beneficiaries of the project were not involved at any point before and even during the project.
“By the time we filed a complaint to the bank,” he added, “there were over 68 attacks on local people. Thrity-four people had been bitten shot or injured, 15 arrested and unfortunately 29 people killed.”
Referring to the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s track record, he said it was “an institution that has had a lot of questions about its reputation and its human rights record all over the country… because of using excessive force, which in most cases results in loss of life.”
Most of the attacks on the community occurred before the project was launched, he said. So the situation could have been avoided if the bank had paid attention and understood the local context of the communities as well as the track record of the implementing agency.
According to the UWA, the Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve was established as a game reserve in 1926, among the first protected areas to be gazetted. The main reason was to protect the large numbers of Uganda Kobs in the area. The Ugandan kob is a subspecies of the kob, a type of antelope. It is found in sub-Saharan Africa in South Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
There are four communities living around the reserve, namely the Karugutu-Kyabandara, the Rwebisengo, the Ntoroko fishing community and the Kasesenge-Kyakabaseke community.
The new report analysed the incidence of intimidation or attacks aimed at human rights defenders and community members in five countries. It said the reprisals they faced included being targetted for expressing opinions, raising concerns or criticising or opposing development projects.
Lorena Cotza of the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, says they have seen some improvements at the policy level among development institutions, thanks to the advocacy carried out around these issues. But looking at the reality on the ground, the picture is quite different.
“Just to give you some example,” she said, “in 2021 the Business and Human Rights Resources Center recorded over 600 attacks against human rights defenders in the context of business activities. And in many of these activities, the development banks, either directly or indirectly, are involved.” said Cotza.
In most cases, according to Cotza, local communities are not consulted or informed. They find out about the projects only when there is a bulldozer in front of their houses or their land is taken away.
“It’s important to note that when talking about these development projects, unfortunately often we are referring to activities that don’t bring any benefit for the local people. And that will often lead to serious environmental, social cultural impacts,” she said.
Often people won’t speak out because they know in advance that if they dare to raise concerns, they end up facing reprisals ranging from harassment, threats, smear campaigns and, in the worst cases, even killings.
Can these attacks be prevented?
According to the Wearing Blinders report, reprisals against human rights defenders can be prevented if development banks introduce “reprisal risk assessment” in their due diligence processes around human rights. The report advocates addressing reprisals before they escalate and ensuring access to remedies.
The study found that when development banks fail to identify and mitigate risks early, reprisals tend to escalate. It added that if projects are imposed without engaging the people impacted by them, and without offering them opportunities to safely express their concerns, the risk of social tension increases.
“Development banks could and should conduct a meaningful human rights due diligence,” said Cotza. And we are not talking about rocket science … Most of all, it’s about listening to local voices, speaking with the human rights defenders and speaking with civil society organisations on the ground.”
She added that banks need to carry out independent assessments, because if they entrust a local company to conduct, for example, the consultations and assessment, it is likely that concerns will be ignored because the company or the government are both interested in pushing the project forward.