World Bank $20M COVID-19 Response Project Complicit in Masking Public Health Emergency

by International Accountability Project and Saglyk

Access the data visualization in English and Russian.

Since 1 January 2020, the International Accountability Project (IAP), through the Early Warning System, has tracked 6 projects financed by the largest development banks in the world including the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the World Bank with a total amount of $40 million USD given to public and private sectors in Turkmenistan.

One project, the $20 million COVID-19 Response Project, was approved in June 2021 and has the stated objective of “strengthen[ing] country-level coordination, upgrad[ing] risk communication and community outreach, and reinforc[ing] testing, response capacities, infection prevention and control, and case management practices in health care facilities.”

Yet, as the project of the World Bank to the public health sector in Turkmenistan at such a critical juncture during the COVID-19 pandemic, it did just the opposite. Complicit in the Government of Turkmenistan’s misleading narrative and misinformation during the public health emergency, the project has enabled a vacuum of information that hindered the pandemic response, putting lives in danger.

In light of this vacuum of information about the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to reach the stated objective of strengthening the national public health preparedness system without effective public communication in the country.

This lack of information was compounded by the low administrative capacities of implementing agencies, including the Ministry of Health of Turkmenistan, where the activities are implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) offices in the country.

“Zero” COVID-19 in Turkmenistan

As of January 2023, Turkmenistan remains one of two countries in the world that has not reported any cases of COVID-19. At the time of writing, the World Health Organization’s official count of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in Turkmenistan stands at zero. Death reports tracked by independent sources described by the government throughout the pandemic as consequences of a seasonal respiratory disease, pneumonia, or dust and air pollution. “For months, the general public were not provided information about the pandemic — the official website of the Ministry of Health was not functional for many months and at the time of writing, information on the website has not been updated since 2021,” said Saglyk, a non-profit organization working on issues related to public health.

Notably, Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed countries where civic space is non-existent. Authorities tightly control access to information and severely restrict media freedoms. “This denial of the right to credible information undermines the population’s health. In this setting, when the public has been left with state-funded misinformation, this denial becomes an issue of life and death,” said the head of Saglyk. The Turkmen government has been known to repress information and independent reporting. A journalist who took and posted a photo of the World Health Organization delegation was jailed and sentenced to four years in prison. Similarly, health workers tried to speak openly about the pandemic but were pressured into silence.

Surprisingly, no international organization in Turkmenistan has made a public statement calling on the Government of Turkmenistan to share data and epidemiological information with the public. Project implementers of the COVID-19 Response Project include the World Health Organization, United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF, in addition to other United Nations agencies and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). While the World Health Organization has visited the country twice. It has been complicit in allowing the Turkmen government to espouse this harmful narrative.

Engagement with the World Bank and project proponents

In the absence of credible and accessible health reporting, Saglyk has been bridging this gap in accountability — advocating for science-based best practices in Turkmenistan and providing one of the few sources of science-based COVID-19 information in the Turkmen language for 12 years. Saglyk houses the only website with credible public health information in the Turkmen language. At least over 400 articles on COVID-19 have been published to provide the public with important sources about the pandemic on a weekly basis.

Over the course of two years and through attempted engagements with project proponents, Saglyk, with support from the International Accountability Project, has advocated for more transparency in the decision-making process. In February 2021, Saglyk approached the project lead asking for community consultations for #COVID-19 response project in #Turkmenistan, engaging USAID, the World Bank team and management, and other development actors and Ministry of Health ministries in Turkmenistan.

After requesting and analyzing two versions of the Stakeholder Engagement Plan, none of the suggestions to strengthen stakeholder transparency and accountability have been incorporated. The Washington-based project team had one meeting with Saglyk, limiting interactions to short email responses with no substance and details and answers to specific questions.

The Revised Stakeholder Engagement Plan, disclosed in June 2022, states that stakeholder engagement was carried out in “consultations with stakeholders throughout the entire project cycle to inform them about the project, including their concerns, feedback, and grievances about the project and any activities related to the project; and to improve the design and implementation of the project.” However, Saglyk has found substantial obstacles to access information and meaningful consultation, noting that consultations have not included independent civil society that would provide an assessment of challenges that the Turkmen public faces in access to information in Turkmenistan. Saglyk has been monitoring other international actors’ (USAID, UNICEF, the EU) engagement with the government concerning COVID-19.

What Legacy Has the World Bank Project Left?

The project is nearing its end and everything has stayed the same for the public in Turkmenistan. The narrative of zero COVID-19 death and infections continue and the public has not seen a single epidemiological report. According to one source, the World Bank has signaled its readiness for further cooperation with Turkmenistan. The World Bank has entered the country with a very low bar for compliance with its own policies. It leaves little hope that other banks working in Turkmenistan will act differently,” said Saglyk.

Saglyk calls upon the project proponents, including the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO, and UNDP to make materials and data as a result of engagement with the government available online to the public and the medical professionals in Turkmenistan.

Saglyk urges the Ministry of Health and Government of Turkmenistan to make publicly accessible information on:

  • Daily number of COVID-19 infections, deaths and recoveries (by capital and provinces);
  • Detailed information on what tests are available and their prices;
  • For physicians and the public, the full written national plan to combat COVID-19;
  • Work protocol of medical staff and sick staff;
  • Information about hospitals and treatment protocols;
  • Provision of medicines and necessary medical supplies both in the capital and provinces;
  • Open and manage a government website that presents this information in a simple, clear, and accurate manner for the public.
  • Assign and make the contact information of the government representative in charge of public education and communication to respond to questions from the public, media, and civil society. The contact has not been shared through the project by the World Bank.

Saglyk.org is a non-profit initiative developed with the mission to improve health literacy and the public’s engagement around public health issues including environmental health in Turkmenistan. The initiative works to bring together concerned Turkmen-speaking audiences regardless of their geographic location. Learn more about Saglyk’s works.

Early Warning System (EWS) exchanges information, advice, tools, and resources with communities and the local organizations supporting them to inform their campaigns related to development plans and financing. EWS has been tracking COVID-19 financing since 2020. Learn more on COVID-19 DFI Tracker and access data for South Caucasus and Central Asia in English and Russian. Read our post about COVID-19 relief financing.

International Accountability Project (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. Read the IAP Strategic Plan 2021–2025.

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International Accountability Project (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.