Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) safeguards for protecting the environment and people they displace in projects lack consultation with communities on the ground and are too “aspirational”, rights advocacy groups said in a forum.
The development bank is conducting a comprehensive review of its safeguard policy statement, which was last updated in 2009. According to the multi-lateral lender, it is modernising its policy statement to do better in “involving communities and responding to their needs when projects are designed and implemented.”
“The culture of dialogue and talking to grassroots and community stakeholders is extremely underdeveloped in ADB. Yes, labour rights is a central element in any project, but how do they make the safeguards binding beyond expressions of aspirations? That is the challenge I am raising,” Rene Ofreneo, president of non-government organisation Freedom from Debt Coalition, told Eco-Business on the sidelines of a panel discussion on Tuesday during the ADB’s 55th annual general meeting.
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Ofreneo, a former dean of the school of labour and industrial relations at the University of the Philippines, said the development bank’s lack of consultation at the community-level explains why it has not developed concrete guidelines on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicators in its loan approval process. The SDGs, established in 2015, are part of global efforts to eradicate poverty, protect the environment and promote sustainable economic growth.
Even if the policy requires bank staff to conduct meaningful consultation, it is sometimes translated to an added layer of burdensome requirements for the staff tasked in carrying it out.
Annabel Perreras, project data analyst, NGO Forum on ADB
Annabel Perreras, project data analyst of watchdog NGO Forum on ADB, told Eco-Business there is a “stigma” across the bank’s staff associated with project concerns being raised from lack of consultation and transparency.
“When there are complaints arising from project concerns, the project team leader would most likely not get promoted in the ADB hierarchy. Even if the policy requires bank staff to conduct meaningful consultation, it is sometimes translated to an added layer of burdensome requirements for the staff tasked in carrying it out,” said Perreras. “We have seen that as a result either there is a lack of consultation or it is done poorly or merely as a tick box exercise.”
She added that staff who are carrying out the work are consultants who will most likely not see the project throughout its duration.
“Although the current policy statement includes how meaningful consultation should be conducted in general, it is scant in details,” she said.
For instance, Perreras cited how in 2019, fisherfolk in northern Sri Lanka were sidelined by a lack of awareness of a project that ADB was developing to rebuild harbors which the fishermen said would only to cater to benefit big players in the industry.
The project information was mostly in English, despite several requests communicated to ADB to translate it to Sinhalese or Tamil—the language spoken by affected communities, added Perreras.
In the Philippines, Perreras noted that one of the most prominent ADB-backed plans which lacked transparency was the US$120-million coal fired-plant in Cebu in 2011. It led to a complaint filed by green groups at the lender’s accountability mechanism, which provides a forum where people adversely affected by ADB-assisted projects can voice and seek solutions to their problems. Advocates claimed that the bank failed to conduct dialogue with surrounding communities and did not disclose the facility’s environmental impact assessment.
The current policy will be enhanced through a new, dedicated standard on stakeholder engagement, information disclosure, and grievance redress mechanisms.
Bruce Dunn, director of safeguards division, sustainable development and climate change department, Asian Development Bank
At the forum, Bruce Dunn, ADB’s director of safeguards division, sustainable development and climate change department, assured the organisations that the new draft policy set to be released in November will be comprehensible for local communities.
“The current policy will be enhanced through a new, dedicated standard on stakeholder engagement, information disclosure, and grievance redress mechanisms. Guidance and capacity support to ADB’s borrowers and clients is planned to strengthen implementation,” Dunn told Eco-Business. “The ADB is looking at measures to support a safe space for civil society to raise concerns about projects.”
Dunn added that the current policy is legally binding, with protections against forced and child labour, and will monitor how projects are implemented especially those in risky areas.
“The new safeguard policy statement will enhance [the current policy] with a dedicated standard on labour and working conditions. As part of the safeguard policy review and update process, ADB drafted and disclosed a benchmarking study on labour and working conditions, and received feedback from governments and CSOs during initial stakeholder consultations,” he said.