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Reuters/Juda Ngwenya

When development becomes a curse: displacements and destroyed livelihoods

Development-induced displacement of people is a common feature in discussions about big development projects around the world.

Attempts by governments to promote development often entail varying degrees of risk for some sections of society. People are displaced and livelihoods disrupted. Often the victims are already impoverished, thus worsening their plight.

The impact is often harsher for people who live primarily off subsistence farming. Furthermore, destroyed livelihoods are often more difficult to restore. Other problems include disruption of children’s education and environmental destruction.

In the past two decades, a considerable number of projects were funded by different development organisations. Between 2004 and 2013, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation committed about US$455 billion to support some 7,200 projects. These were mostly in developing countries and focused on efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals. These were globally agreed development and poverty goals by United Nations (UN) member countries in 2000 to be attained by 2015.

Beyond 2015, UN member countries have agreed on a new set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals. Like their predecessors, these focus on development and promise to end global poverty and promote shared prosperity by 2030. Investments are expected to increase to support the attainment of these new goals. This means that the risk to people and their livelihoods could potentially become higher.

Many projects have had a positive impact on people. Nonetheless, they have also presented risks. About 3.4 million people were “physically and economically displaced” between 2004 and 2013 by World Bank projects alone. This is according to estimates by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Consequently, the international development community’s commitment to ending poverty should be measured by how these risks are mitigated.

Displacement and development goals

Efforts to mitigate the negative effects of people being displaced should include providing a comprehensive resettlement package. A variety of interventions such as safeguard policies have emerged. These call on governments to design comprehensive compensation schemes for those affected. Yet big development projects still expose people to a range of risks.

These are due to implementation challenges. Typically, the implementation of many compensation programmes has been shambolic. And those affected by development projects are often not involved before their implementation. Compensation is therefore often inadequate.

Prior to the 1990s, governments’ responses to people displaced by the construction of dams in developing countries were particularly brutal. The Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam project in Guatamala is an example. The government forcibly attempted to resettle people without any well-planned compensation scheme.

Broadly, compensation schemes have improved over the years. But in Africa, management of the negative effects of a number of projects show that more needs to be done. Examples include the Highland Water Project in Lesotho and the Bujagali Hydropower Dam in Uganda. Others are the Inga 3 Dam project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Bui Dam and Gas Infrastructure Project in Ghana. The point is especially true when it comes to delivering on compensation schemes.

In the Bui Dam project, some 1,200 people were displaced. Those negatively affected continue to express dissatisfaction about government’s failure to keep its promise of support for their destroyed livelihoods. Some families who had portions of their farmlands inundated by the Bui Reservoir are yet to be compensated.

Some communities affected by Ghana’s Gas Infrastructure Project have also lamented about hardships resulting from the destruction of their livelihoods. Chiefs and residents of Anokyi and Abuesi, host communities of the project, complained about poor participation, negotiations, and compensation schemes.

In the DRC, there are concerns about government’s attempt to rush the implementation of the Inga 3 Dam project. The project is expected to displace some 10,000 to 25,000 people. But the government wants to begin implementation without an environmental and social impact assessment.

Forward planning

To meet the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals, governments and donors must make significant investments in critical infrastructural projects. For example, investment related to infrastructure such as dams and roads would become critical in developing countries.

Also needed will be investment in irrigation projects, population redistribution schemes, expansion of agriculture and mining. All are known to have caused major displacement of people.

Governments, multilateral development banks and other development partners therefore need to rethink how they respond to problems resulting from displacement. Such rethinking should focus especially on the impact of projects on peoples’ livelihoods.

All these make forward planning imperative to anticipate the potential displacements of people and their negative implications. This demands development actors to rethink how they capture and confront displacement issues in their investments.

The World Bank has taken a second look at its safeguard policies. Also, the International Rivers persistent campaigns on dam-related cases provide some impetus for moving forward. But, more needs to be done.

Priority areas that need to be considered include:

  • enforcing donor guidelines on development-induced displacements and initiating independent research to track and disseminate the enforcement of these guidelines;

  • the adoption of national guidelines that require all development projects to undergo impact assessments for potential displacements before implementation;

  • strengthening advocacy and the monitoring of displacement issues across Africa and their impact at the regional, national and local levels; and

  • promoting collaborative cross-country research on the impact of displacements to provide best practice, lessons and awareness.

To shape the processes and new avenues, we must start early. Multilateral development banks, governments, civil society organisations, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector all have a critical role to play. This is to make sure that the “leave no-one behind” mantra of the Sustainable Development Goals is made a reality.

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