What does it mean for the World Bank to take a stand against reprisals?

The World Bank Group has acknowledged the serious issue of reprisals and retaliation against project stakeholders in recent statements and commitments to zero tolerance of these actions. It is now critical that the institution put in place clear requirements and procedures for identification and prevention of, and response to, reprisals and retaliation.

This post was co-authored by Christian Donaldson, economic justice senior policy advisor at Oxfam International’s Washington Office and crossposted on Oxfam’s Medium blog.

Civil society organizations, social movements, and local communities have voiced their concerns about shrinking or restricted civic space in many countries, and have advocated for development institutions like the World Bank Group (WBG) to develop clear positions against any form of retaliation against people voicing their concerns about development projects or activities. In 2018, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), took a critical step forward and made public its position on retaliation against civil society and project stakeholders. But it was not until this year, in March 2020, that the World Bank’s public sector side finally made a similar public commitment against reprisals in its projects. Despite the fact that it took two years for the World Bank to follow IFC’s steps, it still represents a critical move forward.

Certainly, these are welcome efforts. But let’s unpack this further to understand better what a retaliatory action is, who is affected by it, who perpetrates it, and more importantly, what IFC and the World Bank should do to operationalize their positions against reprisals.

Retaliatory actions are perpetrated against a variety of individuals such as community leaders, campesinos, indigenous peoples, local politicians, local authorities, women, farmers, workers, union leaders, interpreters, negotiators, labor monitors, journalists, and even children. Retaliatory actions can also take many different forms and vary in the level of threat posed depending on how visual and/or public concerns about a development project or activities are.

What are the most common patterns or red flags to pay attention?  

More often than not, they start as smear actions against particular subjects or groups to delegitimize their concerns and voice. Often these efforts to discredit those who speak out and voice concerns about a development project evolve from labeling them “anti-development” to “instigators of public violence”, to “criminals” and in some cases even “terrorist” (for example, see case in Guatemala and in Myanmar). And often, these actions escalate from smear campaigns to discriminatory actions in the form of denial of work opportunities or public services to actual harassment, threats, illegal surveillance, and even physical harm or death (see case in Honduras). In many situations, these retaliatory actions can even take a more formal or legalistic form of judicial harassment by issuing arrest warrants against individuals raising concerns or investigating cases (see case in Zimbabwe).

Other forms of reprisals against people voicing their concerns include are repression of peaceful protest or civil disobedience actions by use of public or private security forces or by restrictions and/or suspensions to political and civil rights such as freedom of association, freedom of expression, and/or the suspension of free media, shut down of internet services or mobile data under the excuse of addressing “fake news” or “security requirements and public interest” (see case in Myanmar). States of siege or curfew, states of emergency, and militarization are also forms of retaliatory actions in many contexts (see case in Guatemala).

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been used as an excuse for continued human rights violations or retaliation against individuals voicing their concerns as some governments’ measures and restrictions to stop the spread of the virus have been used to suppress any political activities (see case in Zimbabwe).  

So what do the IFC and the World Bank need to do to ensure that their public positions against reprisals actually mean something in their daily operations and investments?

Recognizing that reprisals are a concern and taking a clear position against them was a critical first step for the WBG. However, clear and specific guidance and procedures around the WBG’s commitments are essential if the commitments are to be meaningfully implemented. While IFC has begun to do so, the World Bank has yet to follow suit. The Bank’s development of guidelines and requirements to support implementation of its commitment of zero tolerance against retaliation in the context of its projects should happen in close consultation with civil society organizations and community advocates who are familiar with the various issues and complexities that can arise in cases of reprisal. Here are three measures the World Bank should take to support meaningful and effective implementation:

1. Incorporate contextual risk assessments to identify the risk of reprisal. In order to prevent and respond to reprisals, the Bank must first have the tools to screen for reprisals in a similar way to how they screen for other project-related risks. Reprisals can unfortunately happen in any context, but there are some risk factors that can be flagged early in the project cycle so that project implementers are aware of potential risks and can design proper mitigation measures. For example, reprisals can be more likely in contexts where civic space is restricted — in places where people are not able to organize or voice dissent as easily or safely. Certain sectors can also pose greater risk for reprisals, including mining, infrastructure, or projects involving resettlement and land acquisition, depending on the local context.

In addition to using contextual risk assessments for specific projects, they should also be carried out when the Bank conducts its analysis leading up to the development of a new Country Partnership Framework (CPF), which guides its work in a country over the course of 4-6 years. Contextual risk assessments could be done as part of the Systematic Country Diagnostic, which accompanies the CPF, and is meant to identify any constraints a country faces to achieving its development goals. Major civic space and governance issues that could raise the risk of reprisals at the country level, as well as any particularly risky sectors, should be flagged in this document as a key constraint.

2. Adapt project design and implementation to prevent and mitigate reprisal risk. Once the Bank has identified particular contexts where there could be a higher risk of reprisals, or where civil society or project stakeholders have identified reprisals as a concern, the question becomes: How can the Bank tailor its approach and its engagement with the client government   to prevent and lower the risk of reprisals in this context? Various aspects of the project design and implementation can be adapted to account for and mitigate risk of possible reprisals against project stakeholders, particularly when they raise concerns about stakeholder engagement or consultation efforts. For example, when identifying stakeholders, the project implementer can use an independent third party to conduct the stakeholder identification to prevent exclusion of critical voices. In order to safely hear from critical voices, it may be necessary to engage with stakeholders in smaller group meetings where they can feel comfortable expressing their views, or to exclude government agencies from participation in civil society or community meetings. In contexts where civic space is severely curtailed and civil society may be prevented from operating in a critical and independent manner, implementers can reach out to groups operating outside of the local context (for example, including diaspora civil society in consultations where relevant or appropriate), if they can speak more freely. In stakeholder engagement plans, project implementers can also consider providing methods of engagement that are confidential and/or anonymous, such as hotlines, surveys, or individual interviews. Project design should also include a grievance mechanism that is functionally independent from project implementers and responsible parties. 

In addition, the Bank should establish and publicize a separate, transparent, and predictable process at the institutional level where reprisals or threats of reprisal can be reported confidentially and safely. The Bank should also proactively engage with the government to communicate its stance on reprisals both on a routine basis as well as when considering projects taking place in a particularly risky context and throughout its engagement.

3. Apply a clear protocol to respond to reports of reprisals. In cases where reprisals are reported or where the Bank becomes aware of an instance of reprisal or retaliation against someone who has raised concerns related to a Bank-financed project, it is important for the Bank to establish a clear response protocol. Because each case is distinct, context-dependent, and often sensitive, the response will not be standard across all cases. However, those reporting instances of retaliation should have a clear commitment that the risk they have taken in reporting will be met with a serious and swift response that carefully considers their privacy and safety.

The Bank should develop specific and transparent guidelines for staff receiving a report of a reprisal that above all require immediately elevating the report above the country or project team receiving the report, and critically prioritize the safety of the person reporting the retaliation. Types of responses could include public statements, direct intervention with the government, and connecting the person facing threats or reprisals with immediate assistance in the interest of their safety, as appropriate for the specific situation.

In order to prevent these risks from turning harmful or even deadly, the Bank must continue to take reprisals and retaliation seriously as a risk to its operations and to the communities it seeks to benefit.