In Malawi, Prioritize Community Access to Information for Real Development

John Mwebe

Have you ever thought about how you would react if a large-scale development project ever came to your community? In my work supporting community-led development in Africa, a fundamental necessity for any community is basic information about the project itself. What is the project? Where will it be? How will my family and the environment be affected?

Ideally, a community’s priorities for development should lead any proposed development project. When this does not happen and the development project is designed without the participation of communities living nearby, the project can cause harm. Unfortunately, even for me but especially for local communities, it can be an uphill battle to access relevant information about development projects.

Access to project information is provided for in the policies of development financial institutions as a prerequisite for community participation. For instance, under the proposed World Bank Environmental and Social Policy:

“The World Bank will require the borrower to ensure that sufficient information about the potential risks and impacts of the project is made available in a timely manner, and in an accessible place, and in a form and language understandable to project-affected people and other stakeholders so they can provide meaningful input into project design and mitigation measures.”

One such project, the Lilongwe Water Project, will likely be financed by the World Bank, the African Development Bank and European Investment Bank (among others) to improve water supply and management of water in Malawi. The project also involves the construction of a multipurpose dam on the Diamphwe River, impacting the homes and lands of over 5,100 people and the livelihoods of approximately 26,000 people living in the project area. I first found out about the project through the Early Warning System, an initiative my organization, the International Accountability Project (IAP) and other partners use to inform communities and local organizations about proposed large-scale projects near them. The initiative then reinforces how the communities wish to respond.

Reinford Mwangonde, Executive Director, Citizens For Justice, speaks at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dated: January, 2015.

Since I learned about this project and the likely negative effects to the people and environment, I contacted Reinford Mwangonde- the Executive Director of Citizens For Justice (CFJ), a national advocacy organization in Malawi, to learn more. Unfortunately, the information we had initially was incomplete or not readily available for us to share with the communities. Together with CFJ, we gathered information about this project from various sources on three continents. Through this research, we found that important changes were made to the project which the local community did not know about. Now, informing those likely to be affected and exchanging ideas on how they could respond before the funding is officially approved, is an important component to our work.

As a requirement, projects funded by development finance banks should have an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and, if people will be forced to move, a Resettlement Action Plan. For the project in Malawi, these studies started back in 2014 but because of the deficiencies in quality and timeliness, the local authorities terminated the contract for the firm hired to conduct these studies. A new firm was contracted to complete the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and the Resettlement Action Plan by November 2015. Since it was not apparent that communities were involved in either study and considering the limited time before the project is approved for funding on 15 May, we and our partners have an immense task acquiring all the information needed to inform the community and supporting a potential response.

Collecting project information from these banks is a full-time effort for me at an international organization and for our local NGO partners; so what does it mean for the local communities in rural Malawi to be able to acquire this same information?

John Mwebe (third from left) speaks with communities in Uganda about the Early Warning System

At IAP and CFJ, we attempt to reach out to communities in a proposed project area with information so that they are aware of how they will be affected by the project. Ideally, communities should have the opportunity to engage with the development process and provide their own development priorities long before the project is proposed for funding by either the European Investment Bank and World Bank. If the project is already proposed for funding however, communities need access to the information about the project itself. Ideally, this is supposed to be possible since banks have an obligation to implement their policies by compelling national governments, the borrowers, to provide information in a timely, accessible and understandable way and document evidence for it as a prerequisite to attaining project funding. Lacking this, effective engagement on development that impacts them remains incredibly elusive for local communities.

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

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