Why did the World Bank just cancel its Uganda Gender-Based Violence Prevention Project?

After years of progress in remediation of harm caused in Uganda, the World Bank cancelled a forward-thinking gender-based violence prevention project. Why?

In June of 2017, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved a $40 million IDA credit to Uganda for the Uganda Strengthening Social Risk Management and Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response Project. The aim of the project was to reduce gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA), especially against children and other vulnerable populations in Uganda. The motivation for the project was the need to address the consequences of the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project (TSDP) which resulted in a large amount of sexual violence against underage girls by contractors building a World Bank funded roadway. The GBV prevention project was designed to build on earlier GBV interventions that first responded to the negative impacts on people in the project area and established GBV/SEA related services in communities, respectively. Prior interventions have been well received by communities, the Bank, and civil society organizations (CSOs) and this project was welcomed by the Ministry of Gender in Uganda and eagerly anticipated by CSOs in the country. However, despite the Bank’s approval of the project in June 2017, the project never became operational as it required approval from the Ugandan Parliament.

On April 19th, at a panel session during the Civil Society Policy Forum at World Bank Spring Meetings, Allen Kagina, head of the Ugandan National Roads Authority, announced the cancellation of the project. This announcement came as a surprise to many Bank staff and CSOs in the room as the project was still reported to be moving through Parliament as recently as the previous week. The reasons for the cancellation of the project, and the timeline and negotiations that led to the cancellation of the project, are totally opaque. This cancellation is especially odd as the Bank had, in private conversations, made the approval and implementation of the loan by the Ugandan government a condition of continued lending by the Bank to the Government of Uganda. Additionally, the Bank frequently touted the loan, to its Board of Executive Directors and shareholding governments, as one of the key measures it was taking to address the issues that arose in the TSDP project.

From the standpoint of the project’s design, the cancellation of the project is puzzling. There were no serious shortcomings or critiques of the project design. The project consisted of strengthening of workplace GBV protections, raising awareness of GBV in workplaces and at the community level, establishing community based resources for survivors of GBV, creating livelihood programs for survivors, strengthening police and health sector response to GBV, and establishing project monitoring for high risk infrastructure projects. The end goal was not only prevention of and response to GBV/SEA, but a wide institutional change within Ugandan government and society around these issues. Perhaps it was the fear of those changes that prevented this project from coming up for a vote. This effectively put the GBV prevention loan in limbo, as without parliamentary approval, it is impossible for Bank projects in Uganda to move forward. The reluctance of the Ugandan government to implement this project was best exemplified by the Foreign Minister of Uganda last year stating that the project was being forced on them, casting doubt on the later claim that the Minister pushed as hard as possible for the loan but was stymied by Parliament.

While the motives of Ugandan elected officials are unclear at this point, the World Bank’s response to the failure of their project to obtain approval has been tepid at best. The Bank had initially warned the Ugandan government that funding to Uganda for future projects would be less likely without approval of the loan. Yet only two days before the announcement of the cancellation of the loan, the World Bank approved a $150 million grant to Uganda for refugee assistance, and shows little reluctance to continue funding projects in Uganda. While refugee assistance is incredibly important and Uganda hosts the most refugees of any country globally, it is deeply troubling that the Bank acquiesced so easily to the Ugandan government. The World Bank has a large amount of leverage but has consistently failed to use it to insist that the Ugandan government keep its commitments. The Bank has, once again, failed the most vulnerable people in Uganda and undermined their own claims that reducing sexual violence is of great importance to them.

Currently, the World Bank is considering repackaging the project as a development policy loan (DPL) for GBV prevention, however it is unclear if this would have a comparable impact on the Ugandan government and society as a whole. We have serious reservations about the use of a DPL in this situation due to the opaqueness of the instrument and the amount of trust in the government that Development Policy Financing inherently requires. The Bank’s history of failing to hold the Ugandan government to the commitments it has made raises concerns about whether, and how, the World Bank intends to hold the Ugandan government to their pledge of utilizing the DPL for GBV/SEA prevention. The Bank also indicated that they intend to incorporate elements of the GBV prevention loan as a component of other upcoming projects, but it remains to be seen exactly what that means.

Moving forward, BIC will push for transparency and accountability in the implementation of the DPL by:

  • Seeking clarification regarding how the DPL will be designed to address the underlying structural causes of GBV and sexual abuse of children that led to the cancellation of the TSDP project;
  • Obtaining information from the Bank regarding which future projects in Uganda will incorporate a GBV prevention component, and what percentage of project funds will be dedicated to addressing GBV;
  • Pushing for the inclusion of stakeholders, including civil society, to engage in the process of developing the design for the DPL and the prior actions that will be required as part of the DPL;
  • Advocating for the prior actions that are required for disbursement to be well designed with the focus on prevention of and response to GBV and the sexual abuse of children.