By Tom Weerachat, International Accountability Project
In June this year, the Early Warning System team from the International Accountability Project was invited to teach at the EarthRights Mekong School. The Mekong School is a unique training program for activists in the Mekong region to learn and exchange information and tactics on how to defend their communities from large-scale development projects that harm the environment and human rights. This year, the Early Warning System team had the honor of teaching and learning from 12 students — all community leaders and advocates from China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The topic of our workshop was monitoring development finance and supporting community priorities for development. We began with an exercise to understand what communities can do when they first learn about a development project that will affect them. Students were invited to break into three groups playing roles: a community, a civil society organization and bank staff. The community group was given a piece of paper saying “There is going to be big construction in your community and some of you will have to move from your land in the next 45 minutes. What would you do?” The research group then received a bank project document and was tasked to provide information to the affected community as soon as possible.
While doing this activity, one student from the research group said “It was difficult to read through the bank project documents.” The research team managed to get some information to the community group. When the community learned about the projects, they prepared many questions and protest signs and went straight to the bank staffers group, hoping to get answers. Unfortunately, there was no answer from the bank. One member from the community then started reading out their rights to information and consultation.
But time was up.
The project had started and their voices remained unheard.
After the activity, students expressed frustration with what had happened. A student from Myanmar, clearly upset, raised his hand and said, “Why don’t we sue the bank?” Jocelyn Medallo, IAP’s Director of Policy and Advocacy responded, “These multi-lateral banks enjoy sweeping immunity from lawsuits. What results is a huge accountability gap for affected communities.” “However,” she said, “organizations like EarthRights International are challenging that immunity in court. These banks should not be above the law.” With the support of EarthRights International, farmers and fishermen in India who have been negatively impacted by an IFC-funded coal power plant are challenging the bank’s impunity in a lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in United States federal court.
I could tell that our response was not satisfactory to the student. His question remained not only with him, but with all of us in the room and beyond. I understood how he felt. I think everybody should be accountable for their actions — no privileges, no exceptions. Sadly, we don’t yet live in that system.
Each week the EWS team prepares a list of proposed development projects likely to cause human and environmental abuses to share with the affected communities and CSOs work closely with the community. I shared a list specifically with projects being proposed in the Mekong Region where the students lived.
Everybody was stunned to see how many so-called “development projects” were being funded by different multilateral development banks in their homes and countries.
“How many of you have seen these projects?” I asked. Two out of twelve students had heard of one or two projects in their country.
This is not the first time that I witnessed this. While traveling and meeting with people in the Mekong region and talking about the development projects, I have encountered similar questions, surprises, and concerns from people when they first see the list of development projects in their countries. These people are actually working closely on development in their respective communities and countries, but they still face significant gaps and challenges in accessing information about projects that directly impact their lives.
This situation only underscores the need to work more collaboratively to make sure no one is surprised and harmed by development projects in their homes — so that we may live in a future where that lawsuit will not be necessary.
Through the training, the students now know how difficult it is to access bank information and support a community response. When these students graduate from the Mekong School in a few months and return to their work with local movements, the EWS team will continue to update them with real proposed projects in their respective countries or field of expertise.