Children’s rights at the World Bank - the case of the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project

As published by the Child Rights International Network as a guest article.

On 21 December 2015, then-President of the World Bank, Jim Kim, announced that the financial institution would be cancelling funding for the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project (TSDP) due to widespread sexual abuse of young girls in the project area by project workers.

The works aimed to upgrade 66 kilometres of gravel road from Kamwenge to Kabarole which promised to ease access to markets and make it easier to travel to hospitals and schools. This project necessitated the influx of a large number of labourers from outside the project area and led to a ‘boomtown effect’ where workers moved into isolated rural areas. What followed was an increase in the sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse of women and girls in nearby villages.

The sexual exploitation associated with the project came to the attention of the Bank Information Center and Joy for Children, a Uganda-based organisation that focuses on reducing child marriage and pushing for children, especially young girls, to reach their full potential. Joy for Children consulted with community members near the project and noted evidence of how sexual harassment and assault had increased markedly with its implementation. For example, in just one semester, nine girls from villages close to migrant labour camps dropped out of the same secondary school due to pregnancy, with all nine cases attributed to the Kamwenge-Kabarole road construction staff.

The response

After a protracted advocacy campaign, the World Bank’s overall response was unprecedented. It cancelled the TSDP, which had also been riddled with concerns over road safety, compensation for land acquisition and sexual harassment of female employees. The institution has suspended funding for projects before, but rarely has it completely cancelled funds. It later also suspended funding to two other projects in Uganda involving civil works over ongoing environmental and social welfare concerns, as well as establishing an Emergency Child Protection Response (ECPR) administered by the organisation BRAC. To follow up on the ECPR, the World Bank provided funds to several NGOs including BRAC and Joy for Children, as well as others, to implement the SCOPE Project on sexual abuse prevention in areas negatively impacted by the TSDP.

In response to the TSDP case, the World Bank adopted a transparent approach. It published “Lessons Learned and Agenda for Action”, which admits its own serious failures, including around the preparation of environmental and social impact assessments, as well as inadequate supervision and monitoring of the project. For instance, claims of child sexual abuse were only confirmed more than five months after the initial complaint. It also published a set of public recommendations for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in World Bank-funded projects and a guidance note on preventing the negative impacts of labour influx.

Since the issues surrounding the TSDP came to light, the World Bank has incorporated the lessons learned as part of its new Environmental and Social Framework (ESF). The ESF provides standards and guidance to address social and environmental risk during the design and implementation of World Bank-funded projects, and is supplemented by a number of good practice notes that inform these standards. To solidify their policies regarding sexual exploitation and abuse caused by World Bank projects, the institution released a good practice note on preventing and mitigating gender-based violence (GBV) in the projects it funds. As a result, projects that are found to have a higher risk of GBV or sexual abuse and and exploitation will face additional scrutiny, and will be required to take preventative measures prior to receiving approval by the World Bank Board of Directors.

Falling short of the mark

The World Bank’s institutionalisation of its response to GBV highlights the need to remedy past problems and prevent their recurrence. However, the GBV standards fall short when it comes to putting in place the measures necessary to prevent abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents. The failure to specifically develop guidelines and tools to prevent, and respond to, abuse and exploitation of children has the potential to undermine the World Bank’s progress in this area.

In order to guarantee that the World Bank’s new standards on GBV result in a reduction in development-induced sexual exploitation of children, it is imperative that civil society organisations monitor and engage around World Bank-funded projects that have the potential to cause or exacerbate sexual violence against children. Additionally, they must push the World Bank to put in place guidance and tools that will prevent and address sexual abuse of children and adolescents.

To read more about our work on the case, click here.