The Banks May be Gone but Communities Still Pay the Price for Poor Development Planning

By Elias Jika and Preksha Kumar

“I can speak for my people when I say that we are glad the financiers have chosen not to finance the project” said one local chief. Another person added, “There have been problems and disturbances in our lives ever since this project was introduced.” In every village I visited, the reaction was the same. People were happy and surprised to hear the news that international lenders had backed out of the risky Lilongwe Water Project in Malawi; putting on hold plans that would have negatively impacted the homes and livelihoods of 6,015 people. As one community member noted, “Had the resettlement plan been implemented, our lives would have been made worse. This is good news, and we can now return to our regular pastoral activities.”

The goal of the Lilongwe Water Project, as described by the Government of Malawi, is to expand access to water services in the city of Lilongwe. The project includes the construction of a dam, the Diamphwe Multipurpose Dam, to achieve its objectives. According to World Bank documents, the dam and its associated infrastructure is expected to impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of families in Lilongwe and Dedza districts. After learning about the project through the Early Warning System, the International Accountability Project reached out to Citizens for Justice (CFJ) — a local organization in Malawi — to share project information with the communities who would be affected.

In 2016 and 2017, IAP and CFJ conducted community-led research that identified many risks associated with the project, including a flawed consultation process and the permanent loss of homes and livelihoods. Armed with the results of the community-led research process, IAP and CFJ urged the World Bank and others not to approve the project unless a clear plan for consultation and resettlement was developed. Ultimately, the banks who were expected to finance the project — the World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB) and European Investment Bank (EIB) — decided to withdraw their support, providing a temporary reprieve for those affected.

The good news, however, may be short lived. In late 2017, local media reports indicated that the government of Malawi was in talks with a multinational engineering and construction company, Mota Engil, to enter into a public private partnership agreement to take over the project. This means residents will continue to face the same resettlement and environmental risks. There is now an urgent need for continued advocacy and engagement with decision makers, especially the government of Malawi.

The path ahead is challenging. The government of Malawi has not been proactive in responding to the concerns of local communities. During my visits, I learned that government officials had not contacted anyone in months, and they had not yet informed residents that the original project financiers had dropped out. In fact, four months prior to our follow up meetings, residents had drafted and sent a joint letter asking for more information about the project. To date, they are yet to receive a response or acknowledgement from government authorities.

This official indifference has contributed to a deterioration of livelihoods and standard of living. Many families chose not to cultivate crops during the 2016–2017 growing season, fearing that they would be relocated, and their lands seized. Government officials had previously warned residents to expect to receive a warning three months in advance of any planned resettlement. People feared they would not have enough time to harvest their cultivated crops and chose to forgo that activity in the hopes that they would receive compensation and be able to start over soon enough. These families now face food insecurity. Others obtained permission from their local chiefs to cut down trees in preparation for resettlement; this has resulted in dire deforestation in some regions.

To support local communities in their advocacy and engagement with the Malawi government, the International Accountability Project has partnered with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a local human rights and advocacy organization in Malawi. CHRR is launching an advocacy campaign to address the risks to land and livelihoods and restore, if not improve, the standard of living of all those affected by the project. The campaign aims to strengthen the effective participation of communities in the project and ensure that they are meaningfully and effectively engaged in the process. CHRR will monitor the government to ensure that there is sufficient and effective transparency in the implementation of the project. Michael Kaiyatsa, Senior Advocacy Coordinator for CHRR explains their approach, “CHRR decided to intervene because of the human rights issues related to the dam project. We were particularly concerned about abuses related to resettlement, including the government’s failure to ensure compensation for those affected and to grant them the right to have a say in the decision making process.”

At the community level, CHRR plans to organize orientation and awareness meetings with local chiefs and the affected residents. These meetings will focus on empowering these groups with relevant knowledge and skills that will increase their capacity to engage with the government. At a district level, CHRR plans to hold meetings with public, private and civil society actors — in both Lilongwe and Dedza districts — with the aim of building collaboration and understanding among these groups to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. At the national level, CHRR plans to conduct advocacy and engagement meetings with the government so they may finally respond to communities’ concerns. One important outcome would be the establishment of an effective grievance mechanism for persons who may be adversely affected by the project.

The first planned meeting will be held on March 22, 2018 with government officials, parliamentarians, civil society groups and community leaders and representatives. The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss and share the survey findings with key stakeholders and to address the resettlement risks and concerns of those affected. We decided to engage with the government first so that the findings from the research and recommendations from communities are incorporated in future designs and plans for this or similar projects.

Protection of the rights of the communities affected by the Diamphwe Multipurpose Dam project has been and still is a collaborative effort between civil society groups and the communities themselves. The continued engagement of communities affected by development projects is one of the key prerequisites to achieve real development i.e. development that is designed and lived by the same people. I hope that through the activities planned in the coming months, communities will have the resources and support to demand that project planners respect their human rights and focus on their development priorities.

Elias Jika is the Program Coordinator for Southern Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions at the International Accountability Project. He is responsible for regional outreach on development projects as part of the Early Warning System initiative, exchanging project information with local communities, and supporting community-led responses where requested. He has an academic background in environmental science and technology.

Preksha Kumar is a Programs Specialist at the International Accountability Project.