The key to sustainable development is putting communities first

My experience working with local communities in Malawi has taught me that the average citizen knows that they have human rights, but they don’t always know how those rights can be exercised.

Months after graduating from the University of Malawi with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and Technology, I started volunteering for a local organization, Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM). I worked with local communities in Lilongwe and Dedza Districts on a project that aimed to conserve the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, one of the best birdwatching areas in the country. Community members asked us to help stop human rights violations that they were facing at the hands of corporations or corrupt government officials. I was unable to help since this was beyond the scope of my work, but eventually I decided to refocus my career towards protecting and advancing the human rights of local communities in the country.

While the extractives industry continues to boom in the country, Malawi has also seen a rise in human rights abuses, environmental pollution and corporations failing to fulfill their corporate social responsibility obligations. After leaving WESM, I joined Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi to work on issues of business and human rights and corporate accountability. This experience provided me with the foundation I needed to venture into human rights activism.

One experience that has had a profound and meaningful impact on me was working on the Lilongwe Water Project. This project would have involved the relocation of more than 5000 households in the Lilongwe and Dedza districts of Malawi, to make way for the construction of a dam on the Diamphwe river. This project was also how I first got introduced to the International Accountability Project. IAP partnered with CFJ to share information about the project with the communities directly affected. Throughout my academic and professional career, I had read about and seen human rights abuses, but never this close.

The research we did on this project uncovered that the Government of Malawi had not obtained free, prior and informed consent from the affected communities to construct the dam. After we supported community-led efforts to raise awareness about the problems with this project, the main project sponsors, the World Bank, African Development Bank and European Investment Bank withdrew their funding. Despite this victory, the project remains a high priority for the government and our fight to protect the rights of those affected is not over yet.

Now by joining IAP, I have found the path that I had aspired to take since my first close encounter with human rights abuses. I believe that through my role at IAP, I will be able to support and strengthen the prominence of African efforts to protect human rights. I also hope to use this opportunity to learn from the diverse team of experts, activists and community organizers who make up IAP.

Elias Jika is the Program Coordinator for Southern Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions at the International Accountability Project. He is responsible for regional outreach on development projects as part of the Early Warning System initiative, exchanging project information with local communities, and supporting community-led responses where requested. He has an academic background in environmental science and technology.

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.

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.