Despite Human Rights Violations, Uganda Road Project Continues
Countries aspiring to development often prioritize investment in infrastructure in the belief that it supports the effective functioning of the economy. The government of Uganda has prioritized and invested in the construction and maintenance of roads to promote business, develop the tourism sector, and facilitate service provision. This investment comes at a cost, requiring the government to borrow from different sources such as international financial institutions to finance these projects. The government must then ensure compliance with the standards set by these lending institutions so that communities are not negatively affected by their projects.
The Uganda Transport Sector Development Project is one such project, jointly financed by the World Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB). The AfDB financed the first 143 km section (Kamwenge-Nyakita), while the World Bank financed the remaining 66 km section (Kamwenge-Fort Portal) in 2009. The project aimed to improve the connectivity and efficiency of the transport sector through improved conditions of the national road network and road safety management. However, despite the stated good intentions of the project, the contractor’s failure to adhere to environmental and social standards set by the World Bank halted its implementation.
In September 2015, the Inspection Panel — the World Bank’s independent accountability mechanism — registered a Request from members of the Bigodi and Nyabubale-Nkingo communities who were harmed by the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project. The Inspection Panel’s Report and Recommendation on Request for Inspection, which summarizes the community members’ complaints and recommends an investigation, gives a glimpse of the reasons for the World Bank’s suspension of the project on October 22, 2015. That report notes that:
“The Requesters stated that they were grateful for the Bank’s funding of the Kamwenge — Fort Portal road and recognized its positive impacts on increased trade and access to markets. However, they re-stated the allegations previously raised, including sex with minors and teenage pregnancy caused by road workers, increased sex work, the spread of HIV/AIDS, sexual harassment of female employees, child labor, school dropouts, lack of compensation and inadequate compensation, fear of retaliation, lack of participation, poor labor practices, and lack of adequate road and workplace health and safety measures.”
To clearly understand this, I met with the staff of Joy for the Children, a national organization designated to work on behalf of the affected communities. I learned about their efforts to work with communities to prepare for visits by the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) and World Bank officials and to register communities’ complaints. They had articulated issues of child abuse as a basis for the complaint and successfully advocated for action against harm caused. However, I noticed that the report had highlighted other issues including inadequate compensation and poor labor practices that had been identified in the project area but with no support to communities to address them.
I attempted to reach out to national organizations that had previously worked on similarly harmful development projects and realized that none had made an attempt to reach out to these communities. They either had no knowledge about what was going on or were not operating in the affected area. This underscores the limited capacity of organizations to work with communities affected by development due to inadequate information offered by the project implementers, limited resources for organizations to intervene as well as fear of facing retaliation.
With UNRA’s failure to take corrective steps on a number of environmental and human rights issues, the World Bank cancelled the project and suspended two additional road projects on December 29, 2015. In a press release, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, said:
“It is our obligation to properly supervise all investment projects to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected in our work. In this case, we did not.”
He added that the Bank will work with the Government of Uganda to support the affected community, help ensure that people are protected from retaliation and address deeply rooted social problems. The Inspection Panel also committed to making a comprehensive review of the project and present their findings to the Bank’s management staff.
However, the President of Uganda has since announced that the government would seek other sources of funding to complete the cancelled project. The unresolved issues that led to the project’s cancellation are likely to persist when it resumes. Civil society organizations must now work with affected communities to pressure UNRA to address human rights concerns. The entry point lies with using findings by the Inspection Panel to guide the development of strategies for working with affected communities. Otherwise, we are bound to see a repetition of this cycle of human rights abuses.
John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.