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Stories by IAP on Medium

Stories by IAP on Medium

Community-led research in Malawi leads to changes in major World Bank project

March 24, 2017, 8:24 pm
Residents of Bisayi village. Image Credit: Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi

By John Mwebe

“The World Bank should consult us directly because what the government says may not truly be what we had expressed” says a community member from Lilongwe District, Malawi. This recommendation is one of dozens gathered during an extensive community-based survey of families affected by the Lilongwe Water Project, a proposed $290 million development project, which threatens the homes and livelihoods of 5,100 people.

The severe impacts of this proposed project are linked to the construction of the Diamphwe Multipurpose Dam. With the creation of a reservoir, communities would lose their farmland, livelihoods, housing and access to common resources like schools, markets and graveyards. The dam will also have adverse and irreversible impacts to the environment, affecting natural habitats and wildlife. Shockingly, communities were notified about this project only after plans had been finalized.

Residents of Chimamba village participate in a community meeting. Image Credit: Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi

Since I first wrote about this project imploring the Government of Malawi to prioritize access to project information for affected communities, we worked with our partners, Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi, to reach out these communities to learn more about their views and experience in relations to the proposed project. A survey questionnaire from the organization where I work, International Accountability Project (IAP), was adapted and used by CFJ to obtain information and identify deficiencies in the project design and implementation plan. The survey process took place over a two-week period in May, 2016. CFJ staff and volunteers met with over 700 people and surveyed more than 120 people from the likely affected communities in Dedza and Lilongwe districts.

It is worth noting that the World Bank requires governments or investors to involve affected people in the design of the project and show proof before being approved for funding. Involving local communities can help identify and avoid or at least minimize harms to people and the environment. Ideally communities should engaged throughout project implementation. This is reinforced by a provision on access to information which enables the public to obtain information in possession of the state, and in some countries, private entity information. In reality, it took IAP, CFJ and other NGO partners many days to locate and request information that should already be public and accessible, especially to those identified in the project documents. Given the lack of transparency at many development finance institutions and governments, it is incredibly difficult for project-affected communities to navigate requests for information or most on-line databases.

Residents of Khomani village participate in the survey process. Image Credit: Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi

Projects documents for the Lilongwe Water Project claimed that consultations had been organized with communities. However, results from the survey indicate that the people were dissatisfied with the way the consultations were conducted. Of the respondents, 90% had heard about the project only after plans had been finalized. The consultations themselves were deeply flawed — 76% of the survey respondents indicated that despite the consultations, they did not have the information they needed to make informed opinions about the project plans. Most did not know how to get project information or how to access it online or in-person.

Moreover, the process by which communities found out about the project is deeply troubling. During the consultations, community members were called to meet with government and company officials and were briefly informed about the project. They were then told to take measurements of their land using a hand-held GPS machine. Officials then recorded the measurements and took a photo of each person standing in their land. A respondent from Kaphuka Traditional Authority in Dedza district noted:

“My land was measured and my photo taken on the land but I didn’t see the recorded value. Community members are also afraid that any land measured and recorded without a photo of the owner attached will be taken without compensation.”

People were not given alternatives to monetary compensation for the affected land, homestead and other assets that would be acquired for the proposed project.

A climate of fear limited 44% not to feel safe enough during consultations to share their true opinions about the project. As one respondent noted, “Project developers forced us to declare our land and threatened that the land will not be compensated if one does not take part in the process.” Communities reportedly were not informed about the next steps in the process and many members are living under considerable stress not knowing what will happen next. Fearing that the government may come at any time to take away their lands, communities are not practicing their usual agricultural activities.

Community members see a robust and meaningful consultation as a priority. Many shared their recommendations for how the consultations should have been designed, including “Communities must be consulted first to make sure their fears and concerns are addressed.”

The community-led survey results from people likely affected by the Lilongwe Water Project in Dedze and Lilongwe districts in Malawi. Click the infographic to view, download and share.

To reinforce the overall community recommendations, IAP and CFJ reached out to the US Treasury, the World Bank and the Malawi government and presented the community recommendations at meetings in the US and Malawi. In response, the World Bank met the likely project-affected communities and also held meetings with representatives of the Government of Malawi and national civil society. The Government of Malawi also responded to IAP and CFJ, with its own proposed strategies to address the communities’ recommendations.

Subsequently, the date to decide whether the World Bank funds the project was postponed twice since March and recently was rescheduled to March 2017. The postponements allow for more time to address the recommendations raised by the community.

In the time being, the World Bank requested its staff to develop a revised resettlement program, that could include additional compensation and perhaps even land for the affected communities. The World Bank also asked its staff in Malawi to engage directly with the affected communities and develop livelihood restoration plans for the proposed resettlement area. If the Lilongwe Water Project goes ahead, the community wants substantive and informed consultations, especially during the creation of a revised resettlement plan.

Ultimately, there is time for the World Bank and the Government of Malawi to address all of the community recommendations before the funding decision in 2017. The ongoing interactions with the World Bank and the Government of Malawi will continue to press for the communities in Dedze and Lilongwe districts to have the opportunity to assert and realize their own development priorities.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.

For Those Who Will Never Be Forgotten

February 14, 2017, 9:50 pm

Tom Weerachat

‘For Those Who Died Trying’ at Think Park, Nimmanhaemin Rd, Chiang Mai (February 4-12, 2017)

“There are only two paths for those defending their communities against harmful development projects: one is jail, the other is death” I remembered these words, first spoken to me by Ms. Jintana Kaewkhao, a shopkeeper and community leader, while looking at the new photo exhibit ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The exhibit, by Luke Duggleby, features images and messages from family members of those missing or killed for defending human rights in Thailand. Looking at the images, I couldn’t help but recall Ms Kawewkhao’s ominous message. In 2011, she was sentenced to four months in prison. Another leader of the same campaign, Mr. Charoen Wataksorn, was shot dead near his residence soon after he had provided testimony about environmental harm suffered by his community. His picture is part of the exhibit.

In Thailand, where I grew up, economic growth has long been championed with little attention paid to tensions and conflicts between investors and communities who disagree with the government’s plans for exploiting natural resources, land and the environment. I was aware people faced violence for speaking up but looking at the images in front of me, I began to realize that it wasn’t just individual cases but the system as a whole.

The exhibition is part of the Chiang Mai Photo Festival 2017

Each photograph in the exhibit depicted the framed image of a human rights defender carefully positioned in the spot where they were last seen alive. The images used were the same ones displayed at their funerals. 37 Thai human rights defenders have died in the last two decades and little is written about the struggle to hold perpetrators accountable, let alone how families of the deceased have been coping. At the opening of the exhibit, an audience member asked if there had been any remedy offered to the victims and their families. Pranom Somwong, from Protection International, responded that the government had done very little to support families. Mostly, community members and their friends had organized themselves to support each other. She added one lesson she had learned from working closely with impacted communities — “The best remedy is for communities to be able to carry on their struggles”

There is a social and political system in place that allows killings and enforced disappearances to happen to those who attempt to defend human rights and the environment. According to a report by Frontline Defenders, 282 human rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries in 2016 alone. Half of those killed were actively trying to protect land, indigenous and environmental rights.

Speakers at the opening event in Chiang Mai: Shawn Friele, Embassy of Canada; Luke Duggleby, photographer; Pranom Somwong, Protection International, Anusorn Tippayanon, Chiang Mai University

We may become momentarily aware of this kind of brutality when it happens but for most of us, it’s just information - news we read or watch. In introducing the exhibit, Luke Duggleby, said he hoped the project would encourage the public to discuss the problem facing human rights defenders. He added that such problems would have to be solved by Thai society, not outsiders, and it would be important to make sure that the victims“will never be forgotten.” This exhibit attempts to bring stories that seem remote, closer to our lives and experiences. ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ is profound not only to Thai society but to all of us. We must take a moment, look back and seriously consider how to protect and support human rights defenders — ordinary people trying to protect their communities, lands and environment.

Tom Weerachat is the Program Coordinator for the Asia Pacific region at the International Accountability Project. On behalf of IAP, he is humbled to support this impactful and historical project in Chiang Mai. IAP extends its acknowledgements and gratitude to Luke Duggleby and Protection International for working to recognize those who died protecting human and environmental rights in Thailand and to the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University for arranging the showing in Chiang Mai. This exhibit has previously been shown in Geneva, Brussels, Pamplona with more events planned this year in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkla and Khon Khaen.

Change through Collective Action — A Model for Community-led Development from Uganda

January 10, 2017, 10:48 pm

By John Mwebe

It is a long winding path leading to Masiwe village, 20 kilometers outside of Mbale town. The route is hilly and rocky and can only be accessed by motorbikes. In two different sections, my motorbike could not go uphill because the slope was too steep and slippery. I walked instead. In Masiwe, homesteads are scattered but a few trading centers are close to the main road. I recalled the words of Esther Nambaafu, Program Manager from Spark Microgrants, who explained why they work in villages like Masiwe, “We look out for hard to reach areas whose communities have not had any contact with organizations and with limited government service provision. These are the communities that we work with.”

This was my introduction to Spark Microgrants, an organization that works with communities to drive their own change. Interventions by Spark Microgrants facilitate poor communities to build infrastructure for civic engagement and promote inclusive participation of all community members so they may take collective local actions that create change in their region.

At 10:00 am, community members gathered and developed an agenda for the day’s meeting. This is the routine for communities working with Spark Microgrants. Community members utilize two hours each week to meet and discuss their project. Discussions are moderated by Spark Microgrants staff who offer guidance, but do not participate in making decisions.

To understand why communities participate in this process, I talked to Fred Onyango, a Program Officer with Spark Microgrants “We follow a Facilitated Collective Action Process where we engage communities in determining their development agenda through providing six months of management support and two years of follow-up support. In this entire process, we emphasize community ownership of these projects. Communities do this is by offering their time to meet for two hours every week without any payment for meals or transport. Communities on the other hand agreed to use the same day to hold meetings for their Savings and Credit Groups”

John Mwebe interviewing Mr. Ginoni Amidu, the Chairman, Masiwe Namuzezembi Saving Group in Masiwe Village

Indeed, the communities that I had visited had already selected different projects for implementation and could clearly articulate why they chose one project over another. In Masiwe, communities agreed on a vegetable growing project whereas communities in Makuyu village chose growing food crops instead, like Irish potatoes, maize and beans.

In Kigunga village, I observed a meeting where the community had to choose one out of three proposed community-led projects involving horticulture, cattle rearing and a village savings fund. At the conclusion of this process, Spark Microgrants would offer of a start-up grant of up to US $10,000 to support the project. It was interesting for me to listen to communities articulate how the accrued benefits of one project could support the development of other projects.

Mr. Akabu Namagoye, a community member in support of cattle rearing shared his opinion; “The milk from the cow is sold which earns the family an income, while part of it is left for home consumption improving nutrition in the household. The income received enhances the individual’s ability to save with the village saving and credit scheme while the cow dung from the animals is used as manure when growing horticultural crops.

Aidah Namono, a resident of the same village argued, “Horticulture is the most viable option. It earns farmers an income to buy cows for rearing and to save as well. This is unlike cattle rearing which requires much land that community members don’t possess.”

Community meeting in Kigunga. Community members decide to rebuild the home of a fellow resident.

As I talked to communities going through this process, I noticed a great sense of community cohesion and ownership over the project; two elements which are vital for its sustainability. Women held leadership positions, particularly in Kigunga where they outnumbered men in the Community Savings and Credit group. Some group leaders used their organizing skills to be voted into leadership positions within their local governments, which in turn has improved the community’s access to lobby government for services.

My most treasured memory from the visit happened when the community came together to build a new house for an elderly woman whose home had broken down. Indeed when I asked about how they would react to a harmful project, community members responded that they would help affected persons rebuild their homes where they have been resettled and provide loans from their scheme to start businesses. Throughout, I sensed the community would make the most of their strengths and capacity to steer their own development.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.

But why don’t we sue the bank?

December 7, 2016, 5:11 pm

By Tom Weerachat, International Accountability Project

In June this year, the Early Warning System team from the International Accountability Project was invited to teach at the EarthRights Mekong School. The Mekong School is a unique training program for activists in the Mekong region to learn and exchange information and tactics on how to defend their communities from large-scale development projects that harm the environment and human rights. This year, the Early Warning System team had the honor of teaching and learning from 12 students — all community leaders and advocates from China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The topic of our workshop was monitoring development finance and supporting community priorities for development. We began with an exercise to understand what communities can do when they first learn about a development project that will affect them. Students were invited to break into three groups playing roles: a community, a civil society organization and bank staff. The community group was given a piece of paper saying “There is going to be big construction in your community and some of you will have to move from your land in the next 45 minutes. What would you do?” The research group then received a bank project document and was tasked to provide information to the affected community as soon as possible.

A scene from the role play activity. The research team provides project information to the community

While doing this activity, one student from the research group said “It was difficult to read through the bank project documents.” The research team managed to get some information to the community group. When the community learned about the projects, they prepared many questions and protest signs and went straight to the bank staffers group, hoping to get answers. Unfortunately, there was no answer from the bank. One member from the community then started reading out their rights to information and consultation.

But time was up.

The project had started and their voices remained unheard.

A scene for the role play activity. Faces have been blurred for security reasons.

After the activity, students expressed frustration with what had happened. A student from Myanmar, clearly upset, raised his hand and said, “Why don’t we sue the bank?” Jocelyn Medallo, IAP’s Director of Policy and Advocacy responded, “These multi-lateral banks enjoy sweeping immunity from lawsuits. What results is a huge accountability gap for affected communities.” “However,” she said, “organizations like EarthRights International are challenging that immunity in court. These banks should not be above the law.” With the support of EarthRights International, farmers and fishermen in India who have been negatively impacted by an IFC-funded coal power plant are challenging the bank’s impunity in a lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in United States federal court.

I could tell that our response was not satisfactory to the student. His question remained not only with him, but with all of us in the room and beyond. I understood how he felt. I think everybody should be accountable for their actions — no privileges, no exceptions. Sadly, we don’t yet live in that system.

Each week the EWS team prepares a list of proposed development projects likely to cause human and environmental abuses to share with the affected communities and CSOs work closely with the community. I shared a list specifically with projects being proposed in the Mekong Region where the students lived.

Example of a project list from the Early Warning System.

Everybody was stunned to see how many so-called “development projects” were being funded by different multilateral development banks in their homes and countries.

How many of you have seen these projects?” I asked. Two out of twelve students had heard of one or two projects in their country.

This is not the first time that I witnessed this. While traveling and meeting with people in the Mekong region and talking about the development projects, I have encountered similar questions, surprises, and concerns from people when they first see the list of development projects in their countries. These people are actually working closely on development in their respective communities and countries, but they still face significant gaps and challenges in accessing information about projects that directly impact their lives.

This situation only underscores the need to work more collaboratively to make sure no one is surprised and harmed by development projects in their homes — so that we may live in a future where that lawsuit will not be necessary.

Through the training, the students now know how difficult it is to access bank information and support a community response. When these students graduate from the Mekong School in a few months and return to their work with local movements, the EWS team will continue to update them with real proposed projects in their respective countries or field of expertise.

Victory at Standing Rock Is Not Only About A Pipeline

December 5, 2016, 4:38 pm

By Rachel Humphrey

Since leaving Standing Rock on November 25th, I have been glued to my phone, watching minute-by-minute updates on the efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Today, December 4, I pulled up Indigenous Environmental Network’s live feed to see Kandi Mossett in tears and my heart started to sink.

I thought, “Oh god, what happened now?” I soon figured out that they were tears of joy about the breaking news that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline to go under the Missouri river. While not a complete halt to the project, the statement says that the US Army Corps will conduct an Environmental Impact Statement on the river crossing and explore possibilities for alternative routes, and it is thus a major suspension. I wept with relief and joy as I processed the news. After frustration and disgust at the many injustices that led to the standoff, finally, there is a win for the indigenous people, the environment, and truthfully, all of us.

The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock became personal when my husband Jim and I transformed our righteous indignation from reading social media reports to something more productive: a plan to go to Standing Rock to support the water protectors’ efforts. While Jim could dedicate up to a month of time, I only could go for a week over the Thanksgiving holiday. We began gathering our winter gear and planning logistics.

On Saturday November 19th, we hit the road from the San Francisco Bay Area. On Sunday Nov 20th, we were in a hotel in Spearfish, South Dakota and watched Kevin Gilbertt’s live footage of militarized police shooting rubber bullets and water cannons at unarmed, peaceful protesters in 26-degree weather. We were horrified, and scared — for all the water protectors, and for what we might be facing ourselves.

Arriving at the Gate to Oceti Sakowin on 11/21/16

The next morning, we turned into the gates of the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, with a surprising sense of wonder and excitement. The prayerful, peaceful nature of the camp was palpable, even on the morning after such intense violence. I was awe-struck by the level of organization and collaboration in the camp. Daily services and needs seemed to be met easily: there were seven communal kitchens, regular water and propane delivery, trash pick up and porta-potty servicing. Regular meetings and trainings helped integrate newcomers and set strategy. We attended an in-depth orientation on our first morning, and a direct-action training in the afternoon. There were daily meetings on decolonization as well as political action strategy. The many types and levels of collaboration and coordination were incredible, all without money or hierarchy.

As importantly, ceremony infused the camp. Every morning people gathered at the sacred fire, and then went to the river’s edge for a prayer and blessing led by native women. The sacred fires were always burning, and native people from all over the world came to offer their prayers and songs to the community. The orientation and action training talked through each of the seven Lakota values (prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom) and centered ceremony, respectively. Being in such a space brought a sense of relief, and a feeling of how beautiful communal life could be, especially when compared to the daily lives of most people in today’s American society.

Principles at the direct action training

1. we are protectors, not protestors

2. we are peaceful and prayerful

3. “isms” have no place here

4. we are nonviolent

5. respect locals

6. no weapons, or what could be considered weapons

7. property damage does not get us closer to our goals

8. all campers must get an orientation

9. direct action training for all in action

10. no children in potentially dangerous situations

11. we keep each other accountable

12. this is a ceremony — act accordingly

As I was witnessing an alternative way of being in community, I was simultaneously ever aware that we were in a war zone. Police in riot gear lined the top of Turtle Island, literally standing on a sacred burial ground of the Lakota Sioux. Police floodlights lit the camp at all hours. A plane circled overhead most of the time — some people feared that it was spraying chemicals, others felt it was just there as an intimidation tactic. I’ve since read reports it was part of the efforts to jam cell signals and thwart the water protectors’ efforts to get their message out to the world. Especially after witnessing the brutal tactics of November 20th, their constant presence brought a sense of dis-ease. And of course, that was the point.

Despite all this, my time at Oceti Sakowin was relatively uneventful, with a few smaller peaceful actions happening, and many in the camps both recovering from Sunday and partaking in Thanksgiving meals. The day I left, the Army Corps of Engineers issued Oceti Sakowin an eviction notice, quickly followed by the Governor’s executive order to evacuate the camp, and Standing Rock finally garnered national attention. I rode Facebook-induced emotional roller coasters, fearing for my husband’s safety as well as that of all the people taking such a courageous stand — in the face of these official threats, North Dakota blizzards, aggression from locals, and police-state surveillance. Dozens of friends reached out for advice upon my return — all asking some version of “What can I do?”

There is so much we can do. Thankfully, my answer to that question has changed somewhat, thanks to the very welcome news from the Army Corps of Engineers . Yet Standing Rock has never been about one pipeline — it has also been about indigenous peoples’ rights in this country, the right to clean water, and the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. While fulfilling an ancient prophesy and drawing on beliefs and strategies from generations past, what has happened at Standing Rock is also something completely new. With that, here are some of my thoughts about what we can do from here, collectively and individually.

1. Solidify this win: It is important to remember that while this win is certainly significant, it is neither permanent nor guaranteed. The water protectors and all of their allies will need to keep the pressure up and stay informed of the process so the Dakota Access Pipeline is indeed stopped once and for all.

2. Protect other waters: People who were water protectors in North Dakota can take this purpose back to their homes, where undoubtedly there is water in need of protection. There were signs around Oceti Sakowin that said “Don’t like the cold? Come fight the Sabal Trail pipeline in Florida!” People are galvanized and awareness is heightened thanks to Standing Rock — we can leverage that to secure other wins against other destructive, extractive projects that threaten people’s rights and environment.

3. Learn from this template: Indigenous leadership provided a powerful template of prayerful, peaceful resistance that we all can and should learn from. Our successes in a just transition require us to lead with love. Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter are paving the way for stronger methods of working for social change: grounded in compassion; understanding intersectionality; and centering marginalized voices and leadership.

4. Be courageous: The new era in America — and the world — is calling on each of us to have hope and take action. This is the time to push to our edges and out of our comfort zones. It is the time to be more visible and vocal for our rights than we ever have, before they are gone. It is time to be protectors of nature, and each other, in the face of forces that would happily destroy what we love most dearly for greed and profit. Find your access, leverage, and contribution, whatever it might be. Do more than you have asked yourself to do before. Find community to do it with, and for.

For me, this means stepping up my leadership of the Board of the International Accountability Project, a human rights advocacy organization that seeks to prevent projects around the world — like the Dakota Access Pipeline — from trampling on the rights of local and indigenous communities. It also means being MUCH more engaged and vocal in fighting for social justice and human rights here in the US by holding my government accountable. Lastly, it means creating and maintaining a loving, supportive community with others who are willing to stand up for rights and justice.

What does it mean for you?


Rachel Humphrey is a Program Director at the Bay Area Justice Funders Network and serves as Board Chair for the International Accountability Project.


What are forced evictions, how do they occur and how do communities respond?  Produced by WITNESS and IAP’s Executive Director,People Before Profit explains the global context in which forced evictions occur.

Now in 12 languages.



How can governments and corporations knowingly force a community from their homes? Produced by Amnesty International, WITNESS and IAP’s Executive Director, Evict Them! In 5 Easy Steps is a short satirical animation which shows why some governments resort to human rights abuses in the name of development.

Now in 11 languages.

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