By Hanna Hindstrom
Civil society groups have urged the World Bank to exercise caution before pressing ahead with their plans to pump $85 million into community projects in Burma’s conflict-torn border regions or risk “exacerbating” local problems.
Campaigners have criticised the Bank for claiming that locals will be able to “decide whether to invest in schools, roads, water or other projects” without disclosing details of their consultation plans, transparency provisions and whether they have conducted a conflict-assessment.
“Burma’s ethnic conflicts are complex and the ongoing ceasefire negotiations are fragile, so if the World Bank is looking into providing assistance they need to publish this information,” said Khin Ohmar from Burma Partnership. “That kind of money can easily exacerbate problems or even create more different types of conflicts within the communities.”
The World Bank is one of several foreign donors that have pledged to support the Norwegian government’s peace initiative through a Peace Donor Support Group (PDSG) created in June. Much like the Norwegian initiative, the Bank’s grant is intended “to build confidence in the reform process” by “generating real economic benefits for people in fragile situations.”
But the Norwegian initiative has already courted serious controversy for a perceived lack of meaningful community participation and transparency provisions. Cross-border humanitarian and human rights groups have complained that they will not be eligible to access funding unless they register in Rangoon, thus facing exclusion.
A recent document seen by DVB, which clarifies the coordinating mechanisms of the PDSG and other peace efforts, places a strong emphasis on the role of international actors, including INGOs and governments, with direct support from the Burmese regime but a much smaller role for local civil society. This approach has fuelled concerns that global players rushing into Burma could end up supplanting community initiatives, which have been active on the ground for decades.
“If the World Bank goes through the government, there are many questions that we need to ask, for example will only registered groups get opportunities?” asked Paul Sein Twa from the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).
“We would encourage them to see many of the unregistered and local groups working in the border regions as well. If the INGOs don’t understand the issues on the ground, there could be many problems.”
A coalition of NGOs from Shan, Karen and Kachin states say they approached the World Bank to discuss their concerns as soon as they learned of the initiative. While a number of workshops have been held since, precious little information has been made public.
“Once we heard about the project we immediately began expressing our concerns,” said Khin Ohmar. “We haven’t heard of any conflict assessment – at least there is no information made known to the public – and that’s something the World Bank has an obligation to do.”
“They also have to do a broader, meaningful consultation with local stakeholders. They can’t just impose their own strategy on the community.”
The Bank has announced plans to conduct economic research in Burma and emphasised the value of private sector investment and modernising the financial system.
“Actions in these areas will help the government attract responsible foreign investment, expand trade, manage its resources better and create more jobs and opportunities for people,” said Vice President for East Asia Pamela Cox at the opening of the World Bank’s Rangoon office last week.
But they have not released information about how they plan to engage with communities or tackle civil society concerns in the context of Burma’s ethnic conflicts. A spokesperson for the financial institution declined to be interviewed by DVB, responding only that they are “at a very early stage” in their re-engagement with Burma.
The World Bank has previously attracted virulent criticism in nearby Cambodia for its reckless investment in private sector and infrastructure development programmes.
A leaked internal 2006 report slated the organisation’s forestry management programme “for breaking internal safeguards, ignoring local communities and failing to reduce poverty”.
In August last year, the Bank was forced to suspend all lending to the south-east Asian nation after a controversial property development scheme prompted the forced evictions of thousands of local residents.
“We don’t want to become another Cambodia,” warned Khin Ohmar.