Watch Sasha Chavkin testify to the House Financial Services Committee on ICIJ’s “Evicted and Abandoned” investigation of the World Bank

 

Chairman Barr, ranking member Moore, and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify about the World Bank.

I am a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, a nonprofit news organization that conducts investigative reporting on global issues of public interest. We work through large collaborations with media outlets around the world, such as our project last year The Panama Papers.

I was the lead reporter in a global ICIJ investigation entitled Evicted and Abandoned, published in April 2015, which examined forced displacement caused by projects financed by the World Bank. I began researching this subject when I noticed a series of complaints by communities around the world, recorded in NGO, media and World Bank ombudsman reports, saying that they had been forcibly and sometimes violently evicted, or lost their lands and livelihoods, because of projects funded by the bank.

ICIJ launched an investigation to identify the scale of this problem and the systemic reasons that the same kinds of stories were emerging over and over. Ultimately, we built a team of more than 50 reporters from outlets in 21 countries, we reported on the ground in affected communities in 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and we analyzed more than 6600 World Bank documents that tracked what the bank calls “involuntary resettlement” associated with projects.

We found that over a decade spanning from 2004 to 2013, projects financed by the World Bank physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people around the world. This means that these people either lost their homes, their livelihoods were damaged, or they lost some or all of their land. This figure was drawn from the bank’s own documents tracking resettlement, and includes projects funded by the IDA and IBRD but not the bank’s business-lending arm, the IFC.

We also found that the bank regularly failed to follow its own safeguards for protecting displaced communities. These commitments include resettling communities in equal or better conditions than they lived in before, restoring lost livelihoods and avoiding violent evictions. They are broadly summarized by the principle of “do no harm” toward poor communities living in the path of bank projects.

We found instead that the bank repeatedly funded governments that not only failed to adequately resettle communities, but in some cases were accused of human rights abuses such as rape, murder and violent evictions associated with bank projects. We found in several cases that the World Bank continued to bankroll these borrowers even after evidence of these abuses came to light.

One of the most significant cases we examined was the bank’s support for the Protection of Basic Services program in Ethiopia, an initiative known as PBS that supported the provision of education and healthcare across Ethiopia. We investigated allegations that some of this money was diverted to an Ethiopian government program called villagization that violently evicted a minority tribe called the Anuak from their traditional farmlands, which were then turned over to investors.

I met with Anuak refugees from Ethiopia in a camp in South Sudan, where they had fled despite the ongoing civil conflict because it was safer for them there than remaining in their traditional homeland in Gambella State in Ethiopia. I encountered a devoutly Christian community whose members described being beaten, raped and seeing family members killed by Ethiopian soldiers who were driving them from their lands. I also spoke to the former Governor of Gambella who was in charge at the time of the evictions, now living in exile in the Philippines, who described to me how he personally diverted $10 million in World Bank funds to the villagization program.

Despite the evidence presented by refugees, human rights groups and others, the World Bank refused to acknowledge that its funding had supported these evictions. I spoke to the Ethiopia program director at the bank who had met with Anuak refugees face to face, but because their stories did not match the bank’s internal assessments, said he had to “agree to disagree” with the refugees’ accounts of the abuses they had suffered. The World Bank not only continued to fund the Ethiopian government, but last year announced an extension of a similar initiative under a different lending mechanism that will now make it impossible for communities to file complaints to the World Bank ombudsman.

The Ethiopia case was one of a number of IDA projects that our team investigated – which included the stories of indigenous people in the forests of Kenya whose homes in were burned in a bank-funded conservation project, and slum dwellers in a World Bank redevelopment zone in Lagos, Nigeria who awoke one morning to find bulldozers bearing down on their homes.

There are three findings from our reporting that seem most relevant to the work of the committee today.

One is that the World Bank has serious problems with enforcing its safeguards and holding its borrowers accountable for following its rules. The bank has repeatedly been unwilling to admit errors, responded to negative consequences of its projects with public relations and spin rather than taking responsibility for them, and failed to listen seriously to the voices of the poorest people in the world, whose wellbeing is at the heart of its mission. These shortcomings have real consequences, as large sums of aid flow to regimes and to projects that violate the bank’s rules and principles.

I would like to clarify, however, that these failures of safeguard enforcement do not negate the fact that the same projects may also contribute positively to development. For example, in the case of the PBS program in Ethiopia, the bank said its investments had helped slash child mortality in half and increase primary school enrollment by 13 percent in less than a decade.

The second point is that the bank can be responsive to pressure, in the form of negative publicity and the influence of donor countries, particularly the United States. Shortly after ICIJ shared its findings with the bank, the bank announced a resettlement action plan that boosted funding for safeguards enforcement by 15 percent, hired 11 new safeguard specialists and created new oversight procedures for resettlement. The resettlement documents and ombudsman reports that allowed ICIJ to conduct our investigation existed because the bank had previously created an ombudsman called the Inspection Panel and adopted an open records policy at the insistence of the United States.

Finally, despite its shortcomings, the World Bank still has the highest standard of accountability among multinational development banks. It offers greater transparency and oversight than regional development banks in Latin America, Africa and Asia and the new China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which do not keep sufficient records to allow similar investigations of displacement. Similarly, for all of the bank’s problems with their enforcement, the World Bank’s safeguards remain a benchmark for development banks around the world and the governments and the companies that they finance to do the hard work of development in impoverished countries.