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NGOs — Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes?

Have outside activists undermined World Bank development projects?

October 11, 2004

Have outside activists undermined World Bank development projects?

An army of advocates pounds upon the World Bank's doors today, demanding that its projects bend to particular concerns.

No damage to indigenous peoples, no harm to rain forests, nothing that might hurt human rights, or Tibet — or democratic values.

These constant NGO offensives tie up the World Bank, frequently disabling its efforts to fight poverty. Despite their diminutive stature, the Lilliputians are winning.
Unless the world wakes up to this danger, we will lose the potential for good that big organizations offer — to rise above the single-issue advocacy that small groups tend to pursue, and to square off against the world's grandest problems in all their hideous complexity.
So, if the first threat to the multilateral system lies in our alternating bouts of millenarianism and contempt, a second one hides in the cacophony of our advanced democracies.

I encountered this problem in May 2003, on a visit to East Africa. The World Bank was promoting a dam near the source of the river Nile, at a beautiful spot called Bujagali.
Western NGOs were in revolt. The International Rivers Network, based in Berkeley, California, proclaimed that the Ugandan environmental movement was outraged at the likely damage to the Bujagali waterfalls. And it argued that the poor people near the site would be uprooted from their land and livelihood.

The activists' resistance had tied up the World Bank for several years. It delayed a project that would get electricity to clinics and schoolrooms that lacked lights — as well as to industries whose productivity was wrecked by a lack of reliable energy.

It is true that the World Bank has a bad history with dams, backing schemes that have harmed both people and the environment. Which is why journalists based in America or Europe often believe the NGOs' charges without being able to check them.
But now I was in Uganda, a few hours' drive from the proposed dam, so I called up the Berkeley activists and asked for some advice.

Who ran this Ugan-dan environmental movement that was so outraged? Where were these villagers who would be cruelly dislocated?
Lori Pottinger, the International Rivers activist who led the Bujagali Campaign, was not exactly forthcoming. Her local counterparts were preoccupied, she said — and snooping around the villages at the Bujagali site would get me into trouble with the Ugandan authorities.

I tracked down the environmental group that she worked with anyway, and telephoned the office. I was invited to come over straight away.

The group's young director sat me down in his office and plied me with leaflets and reports, which gratefully acknowledged the sponsorship of a group called the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
After half an hour of conversation, I asked the question that really concerned me: What kind of organization was this?
"This is a membership organization," I was told.
"How many members?" I asked. My host kindly got up and rummaged about in his desk, returning with a blue notebook. "Here is the list," he said triumphantly. I looked. Uganda's National Association of Professional Environmentalists had all of 25 members — not exactly a broad platform from which to oppose electricity for millions.

My next move was to visit Bujagali. I hooked up with a Ugandan sociologist who knew the region well, and who promised to translate for me.
At a little cluster of buildings on the edge of the dam site, she stopped and checked in with the local government representative. Far from threatening to call the cops, he grinned and climbed into the car with us.

For the next three hours, we interviewed villager after villager — and found the same story. The dam people had come and promised generous financial terms — and the villagers were happy to accept them and relocate.

My sociologist companion said maybe we had sample bias. We were interviewing men, who might be only too willing to spend cash compensation on booze, leaving their families with nothing. So we interviewed some women, too, and they offered the same pro-project line.
The only people who objected to the dam were the ones living just outside its perimeter. They were angry because the project was not going to affect them. They had been offered no generous payout, and they were jealous of their neighbors.

This story is a tragedy for Uganda, since millions of Ugandans are being deprived of electricity — deprived by Californians whose idea of an electricity "crisis" is a handful of summer blackouts.
It is also a tragedy for the antipoverty fight worldwide, since projects in dozens of countries are being held up for fear of activist resistance.

This would not happen if American and European politicians could tell good NGOs apart from unreasonable ones, and could close their ears to unjustified complaints.

This appears to be hard. Time after time, malicious Internet-enabled groups make scary claims about the iniquities of World Bank projects — and the government officials who sit on the bank's board believe them.

In the face of this pressure, the World Bank is often forced to go to absurd lengths to prove that its projects will do no harm — even commissioning, in the case of one project, an environmental and anthropological study that ran to 19 volumes.
Small wonder that the World Bank is attacked for being maddeningly slow. It is indeed slow, but the reasons lie mainly outside it.

From THE WORLD’S BANKER by Sebastian Mallaby. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Sebastian Mallaby, 2004.