Earlier access to information will make development better: Here’s why

Community members affected by the Lilongwe Water Project discuss the results from the community-led research process

For over two years, I listened to and documented the experiences of families in Cambodia who had been, or were soon to be, displaced by a 650km railway rehabilitation project funded by the Asian Development Bank.

I was invited into demolished or considerably destroyed homes and met families living in one of five resettlement sites scattered across the country. Most of the resettlement sites were woefully inadequate to sustain the communities’ basic needs and livelihoods. The research team and I held discussions with women to understand the project impacts on their lives. We documented stories of coercion and harassment that pervaded the resettlement process. In the end, we bore witness to the stories of over 200 households.

What surprised me at the time were the gaping holes in information about the project. Even the most basic information was not available to communities — most people I spoke to did not know the financiers of the project, the timeline of resettlement, the environmental and social standards that applied, the communities’ entitlements, or how to file a complaint about the project. It didn’t make sense to me that those leading the project failed to involve the people whose lives were going to be changed the most.

Since then, I have learned that this lack of information about projects is generally the rule, not the exception. I see access to information as a key human right and unfortunately, one that it is rarely realized in the development process. The right to information is indispensable in realizing other human and environmental rights and critical in enabling communities to make the future their own..

Community members in Sri Lanka discuss the Northern Province Sustainable Fisheries Development Project proposed by the Asian Development Bank

For sustainable and inclusive development, we need to engage the people who historically have been excluded from or marginalized in these conversations. This is not a new concept. The environmental justice movement — which is built on the premise that poor and marginalized communities disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental harms –has long recognized that access to information and participation is the foundation for democratic environmental governance, and for addressing the distributional impacts of pollution and toxicity on the poorest communities. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration declared:

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens . . . At a national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities . . . and the opportunity to participate in decision-making.”

Regional treaties have similarly codified the right to access information. Ratified by 46 countries and the EU, the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (known as the Aarhus Convention) promotes public participation in environmental decision-making. More recently, 24 countries adopted the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean ( known as LAC P10, or the Ezcazu Convention), the region’s first legally binding agreement on environmental rights created to improve access to information affecting the environment and to increase public consultation in environmental matters.

Pictured Above: Sukhgerel Dungersuren and Jessica Amon, members of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team

And while many development institutions have adopted policies on access to information and meaningful consultation, substantial gaps still exist.

Research conducted by the Global Advocacy Team, involving 800 people affected by development projects in 8 countries, found that 84% did not have information they needed to provide an informed opinion about project plans and 64% did not know how to get information about a project.

With billions of dollars in public funds, development institutions are obligated to publicly disclose information about the projects they are considering financing. Depending on the severity of risk to people and the environment, they must disclose publicly the proposed project information for a set, limited time, regularly a few weeks, before deciding whether to finance the project. While this is an important step in providing access to information, what we find is that the information communities need is incomplete or not provided at all. By the time communities and civil society representatives learn about the project, it can be too late. The project is approved, the contractors have already been hired, the environmental and social impact scoping and assessments have been drafted, and project operations may have even begun. Historically, this was the moment when civil society first became involved, once the externalities of bad project design and faulty consultation manifest into abuse and conflict. Leverage to stop or change the project is much harder once the contracts have been signed.

To improve how a community can participate within and inform the current development process, the information exchange among governments, development institutions, private actors, civil society and communities needs to change .

What does it look like to facilitate community voices at the earliest project stages? And, what can be gained from early interventions by communities?

These are questions we have grappled with and tested as part of the Early Warning System. The Early Warning System is an initiative that provides communities and the organizations that support them with access to information on projects proposed by development institutions, early in the project cycle. By doing so, our regional teams work to facilitate an exchange of information between the development institutions, governments, and those who stand to be affected by a project or investment.

Read more about our methodology and how we work.

Simply put, IAP and our partners leverage information and access at development institutions to crack open the barriers to transparency in development projects. We believe early interventions that are based on the local knowledge and expertise of communities can unearth, mitigate, and at times, remedy critical design flaws of projects.

Here are a few examples from the Early Warning System initiative:

Government representatives and community members visit the proposed resettlement site

India: In the World Bank-funded Tamil Nadu Sustainable Urban Development Project in India, a project set to displace hundreds of families belonging to marginalized communities — scheduled castes or tribes, people with disabilities, and women-headed households — early interventions enabled communities to lead the fight for their rights to adequate housing, to push for increased public scrutiny on the resettlement processes, and ultimately to improve conditions for families forcibly evicted. Although the World Bank had conducted consultations and focus group discussions, residents cited issues with the consultations, some reporting that, at their best, these consultations merely recorded communities’ issues with the plan and yet failed still to account for the communities’ priorities and concerns in the design of the project. Early interventions by a community-based advocacy group, the Information Resource Center for Deprived Urban Communities, led decision-makers at the World Bank to prioritize additional scrutiny on resettlement issues and eventually to a dialogue with the Corporation of Chennai.

Excerpt of infographic in Chichewa detailing the findings of the community-led research process into resettlement impacts.

Malawi: For the Malawi Lilongwe Water Project, once funded by the European Investment Bank, World Bank, and African Development Bank, community-led research conducted uncovered a faulty consultation process and a correspondingly inadequate resettlement plan. Since communities were able to convey their concerns early in the project cycle, there was time for the banks to correct these processes and the faulty resettlement plan Early interventions by local groups and the Early Warning System team shed light on the inadequate consultation processes and resulting faulty resettlement calculations and opened the consultation process with local organizations and community groups. Due in part to these community-led interventions, funding for this project was dropped.

Tanahu residents participate in the community-led survey process to investigate impacts of the Tanahu Hydropower Project

Nepal: The Tanahu Hydropower Project in Nepal — a project funded by the Asian Development Bank, European Investment Bank, and Japan International Cooperation Agency — was set to displace 750 households, including indigenous Magar, Gurung, and Newar communities, who depend on their land for their livelihoods. The Early Warning System and its partners reached out to affected communities and were requested to provide training on the environmental and social safeguard policies of these banks and how communities can provide their input to the design before they have been finalized. Citing gaps in information, affected communities embarked on community-led research which found that 93% of respondents were not given the opportunity to propose development ideas in their community and 75% were not consulted during the project planning phase. Armed with knowledge about the project, its financiers, and the standards that apply, communities organized and engaged actively with the national government and private companies, resulting in increased access to decision-making spaces and consultations that were directed by community members. Communities ultimately filed a complaint to the independent accountability mechanism.

Chile: Finally, in Tocopilla, Chile, traditional fisherfolk communities were alerted by the Early Warning System about plans of the IDB Invest to build a desalination plant in their region. Equipped with project information early in the project cycle, communities sent a letter to the board of the bank, raising concerns about how the plant would affect their fishing activities, which is not only the basis of their diet, but also of their culture. They are now better positioned to exert pressure to ensure adequate and meaningful consultation and the inclusion of their own priorities.

A shift in thinking and an investment in resources are needed to facilitate the true participation of communities to shape their own visions of development and to safeguard their environments. Recognizing and respecting the local expertise and stewardship of community and indigenous voices is the first step. Beyond this, a community’s development priorities must lead any project. We must expand the policies and systems to ensure access to information and participation in national and regional development agendas and, if needed, facilitate communities to implement their vision of “development” with dignity and respect for their self agency.

As one of the major facilitators of development today, development institutions should lead by example and ensure that communities are informed leaders in shaping development.

Jocelyn Medallo is the Policy and Advocacy Director at IAP.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.