Development in the Caucasus and Central Asia: Open for Business, Closed to Civil Society

Ishita Petkar

In recent years, several countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia have seemingly embraced a trajectory that is more liberal, open, and market-based. These changes have heightened the prospective profitability of investments made in the region, and correspondingly captured the attention of development banks seeking to capitalize on these reforms.

While economies in the region continue to open up to international trade and expand the private sector, the space for civil society remains closed and restricted. It is difficult for civil society and communities to access information on projects that are being proposed, and risky to ask questions, voice concerns, and meaningfully participate in development processes. For civil society to be able to participate in the development plans of their country, people must have safe, secure, and accessible information early on in the project cycle.

In mid-June, the International Accountability Project’s (IAP) partners CEE Bankwatch and the Coalition for Human Rights in Development hosted a meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia, bringing human rights defenders and civil society organizations together to exchange information and create tactics and strategies to respond to the rapidly shrinking space for civil society worldwide. Throughout the three-day Defenders Exchange on Development Finance, human and environmental rights defenders from around the world — including the Caucasus and Central Asia — all emphasized the urgent need to safely access information on projects proposed by development banks.

However, simply having the ability to access this information is not enough. For the information to be meaningful, communities must have access early-on, and in a language and format that is understandable. As several defenders stated during the meeting in Tbilisi, in the context of many countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, even Russian can be inaccessible for communities seeking to understand complex projects. With this in mind, project documents in English describing a technical US$30 million power transmission project in Uzbekistan, for example, cannot be accepted as fulfilling the right to access to information.

Breakdown of projects proposed for Uzbekistan in 2018 by Bank and sector, as of November 2018.

Staying with Uzbekistan, based on data collected by the Early Warning System, the country has seen a recent spike in interest from development institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In 2018, the World Bank approved its first development policy loan to the country, amounting to US$500 million for changes to law and policy to support its transition into a market economy. At the same time, the EBRD has re-engaged with the country opening a new office in Tashkent, and proposing a slew of investments focused on the private sector. In sum, the large portfolio of projects proposed in Uzbekistan cover everything from gas turbines, to irrigation, to the privatization of early education. Despite proposing projects that are self-described as “transforming” the country, a brief glance through these banks’ access to information policies reveals that not a single one clearly mandates the translation of project documents into national and local languages before project approval. Even a project whose stated aim is to capacitate communities to contribute to local development processes does not prioritize publicly available translations of project documents.

In Tbilisi, IAP shared how the Early Warning System is working to address this information gap. By automating the monitoring of 13 different development banks, the Early Warning System is able to quickly verify and summarize descriptions of all newly proposed projects, before promptly sharing this information with our global, regional, and local networks. The information provided is accessible and non-technical, with translation capabilities built into the database’s infrastructure. Through this global collective, the Early Warning System strives to ensure that early information on development projects, and the public and private actors involved, reaches those that deserve to have the greatest say in their design and implementation.

The Early Warning System operates on the conviction that when information is made accessible and available to civil society early on in a project’s lifespan, a singular opportunity is created to flag potential problems in the project’s design, and propose alternatives that reflect the development priorities of the people. When communities are enabled to intervene before funding has been determined, they can mitigate adverse impacts and influence the outcomes of a project.

Access to information is a fundamental human right. As countries around the world become increasingly restrictive, ensuring that defenders and their communities have safe and meaningful access to information is the first step to ensuring their informed engagement in processes that are ultimately meant to fulfill the promise of development — to improve the lives of all people.

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For more information on how to get involved with the Early Warning System, contact us at ews(at)rightsindevelopment.org.

The International Accountability Project (IAP) thanks Open Society Georgia Foundation for organizing and hosting an outreach meeting with Georgian civil society organizations, and defenders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Egypt, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan for sharing their insights.

Ishita Petkar is the Policy and Community Engagement Coordinator at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Washington D.C.