Not a Checkbox: The right to information as the foundation for development

Til Bahadur Thapa, an indigenous community member affected by a hydropower project in Nepal

“We did not receive adequate information and opportunity for meaningful participation and proper consultation in the project. Key documents were not provided to us in our native tongue. The form and rates of compensation were determined without our participation and as a result, are unfair, inadequate . . .and are being imposed on us.”

We now know this is not an isolated incident. Each familiar story — borne by communities across geographies and banks — represents a missed opportunity for institutions to prioritize community-led development and facilitate the meaningful engagement of communities through early and comprehensive access to information. It’s a missed opportunity to ensure that communities’ deep understanding of the social and political context is reflected in and improves the project design.

Our Approach

If we start from a place of recognizing the inherent and practical value of centering the entire development process, including the consultation process, on communities, then the logical question is: Why isn’t this happening?

  • availability of environmental and social information, such as environmental impact assessments;
  • availability of information on the triggered environmental and social safeguard policies (should communities want to know what their entitlements may be and the bank’s responsibilities);
  • availability of information on project contacts (should community members seek additional information or clarification about the project and its impacts);
  • availability of information on the independent accountability mechanisms (should communities want to lodge a grievance); and
  • the timing of this information (or, the number of days’ notice communities receive before project funding is approved).
Read IAP’s Interactive Analysis of the IDB Invest: https://tabsoft.co/30dnOWd
IAP’s updated criteria aims to maximize community access to information in evaluating development bank disclosure practices.

Here are three takeaways on the right to information from the Early Warning System:

1. Put Communities First. Refocus on the Intended Beneficiaries of Development and Better Designed Projects Will Follow.

Communities possess legitimacy and local expertise that can improve the design of potential projects — or even propose more suitable alternatives — anticipating and mitigating adverse impacts and ensuring they achieve positive impacts that further their development priorities. They can also contribute with community priorities that can become a part of projects and assist in how they are received in their locality.

2. A Shift in Mindset is Needed — From Information Disclosure to Right to Information.

Approaching these complex issues from a perspective that centers communities’ right to information - not just the disclosure of information - is indispensable for rights-affirming development. This approach can help align projects in a way that will be responsive to the cultural, material and urgent needs of local communities.

3. Institutional Accountability and Practice Matter.

The shift from simply disclosing documents online to actually enabling access and inviting active participation in decision making for communities entails a change in both policy and institutional culture, and must transfer directly into practice.

The Shift We Need

Across the board, development institutions should do much more to fulfill communities’ right to information, and ultimately, their right to development. Until community-led development priorities are the first step of any project, communities’ right to development will remain unfulfilled. Development banks should refocus their policies and practices on people, the intended beneficiaries of development, and prioritize enabling their meaningful participation to better project outcomes, and ultimately realize the promise of development.

Til Bahadur Thapa and indigenous communities in Nepal conducting community-led research.

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IAP

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.