Residents of Bisayi village. Image Credit: Citizens for Justice (CFJ) Malawi

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

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.