World Bank’s proposed standards “gravely weaken” investment safeguards

5 April 2016

In mid-March, the World Bank closed the third and final round of public consultations on its proposed new framework of environmental and social standards, replacing the current safeguards (see Observer Winter 2016, Autumn 2015). Prior to the closure, in an early February Devex article, Michael Cernea, professor of social anthropology and international affairs, Vinod Thomas, director general of the Asian Development Bank’s Independent Evaluation Department, and Rob van den Berg, visiting professor at King’s College London, called the new standards “weaker” than the current safeguards and raised concerns regarding the flexibility of the standards: “Standards that are discretionary are not standards, except in name.” The authors, all with a background working at or close to the World Bank, argued: “By preventing or reducing risks and dysfunctionalities, the safeguard policies have provided over the last three decades immense services, and vastly improved the Bank’s contribution to poverty reduction … If implemented, the World Bank’s current proposal to revise-down and de-rank safeguard policies would gravely weaken social and environmental safeguards on which investments are now premised.”

By the end of the consultation period 85 submissions had been received by the Bank. These included a video submission facilitated by NGO Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria on behalf of communities of Badia East, who in 2013 were forcibly evicted in the context of a World Bank funded project (see Observer Autumn 2014, Bulletin Sept 2014). In its submission, the Nordic-Baltic World Bank constituency called for the new standards to reference “respect” for human rights, instead of the current language on “aspirations”, which they called “problematic”. International NGO Minority Rights International and law firm Lex Justi’s joint submission went further, calling the language “a fundamental misreading of the [Universal Declaration of Human Right’s] authoritative status in international law”. According to the international NGO Coalition for Human Rights in Development’s submission: “If adopted as is, [the new framework] could significantly increase the chance of development-related human rights violations”. Moreover, the UN Environment Programme’s World Conversation Monitoring Centre’s submission called for “limits regarding unacceptable projects/impacts” to be clearer. It questioned the “overemphasis on the use of biodiversity offsets” and cautioned that “this creates a risk that offsets are seen as a given, and that development proceeds without being challenged as to whether a no project scenario might deliver more social benefits.”

In addition to the public consultation, the World Bank’s executive directors are discussing outstanding issues in the draft in working groups, including on human rights, labour rights and indigenous peoples. It is expected that the working groups will report back to the Bank board in May. No date has been publicly confirmed on when the review will be officially completed and the new standards will come into effect.