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In involuntary resettlement for China projects, the World Bank ignores its own guidelines

June 12, 2000

For some years now, the World Bank has been promoting the People’s Republic of China as a model of "best practice" for the developing world in the contested area of involuntary resettlement. This evaluation has been widely repeated, and most recently has been adopted in several papers commissioned by the World Commission on Dams (WCD—, a body mandated to conduct an independent review of the "development effectiveness" of big dams and water projects around the globe. Today Human Rights in China releases three documents, two articles from the Spring 2000 China Rights Forum and comments on a WCD report, that challenge the image of China as resettlement model.

These documents are released as the Bank’s management is due to deliver its response to the World Bank board to the report of an Inspection Panel tasked to assess whether proper procedures and guidelines were ignored in the assessment of the resettlement component of the China Western Poverty Reduction Project slated for Dulan County, Qinghai Province. This Inspection Panel was only initiated after a ground-breaking request from the International Campaign for Tibet raised serious questions about whether Bank policies and safeguards were applied in the feasibility studies and environment assessments for this project.

But as the attached documents show, by its own admission the World Bank effectively waives its own guidelines in its work on resettlement in China, while ignoring evidence contradicting the favored image of China as resettlement paragon, most notably the stream of reports about corruption and malfeasance associated with the Three Gorges Dam. Other institutions, including consulting companies, follow the Bank’s lead. And most recently this uncritical and selective approach is appearing in assessments prepared for the supposedly-independent World Commission on Dams.

In "Illusions of progress? The World Bank and involuntary resettlement in China," Patricia Armstrong points out the disturbing fact that, despite its experience elsewhere, the Bank appears to consider the restrictive human rights environment in China a positive factor in resettlement outcomes. She also shows how the Bank has failed to meet its requirements for independent assessment of resettlement programs associated with its China projects, using instead research institutes attached to the Chinese government departments sponsoring the projects in question. She concludes: "The methodology and conclusions of the World Bank’s analyses of resettlement activities in China call into question the degree to which China, the Bank’s largest borrower, is simply subject to a different set of standards than those applied by the Bank in other countries."

In "Wishful thinking: China, resettlement models and the international review of big dams," Sophia Woodman writes that popular action by rural people has been an important factor in forcing change in China’s disastrous resettlement policies of the past and in gaining redress for past wrongs, yet this fact is generally ignored by the Bank and by those who repeat its conclusions. Such protest tactics say much about the restrictive human rights climate in which resettlement occurs, as well as about the failings of grievance procedures available to the displaced. She also points out that like so many such laws in China today, regulations on resettlement contain vague promises rather than enforceable guarantees, and thus serious questions remain about their implementation. She asks why, then, the resettlement review under the World Commission Dams has chosen to repeat the received wisdom about China as model.

In a comment on the World Commission on Dams’ China Country Review Paper, Woodman wonders how a balanced assessment of the China experience could be possible when the author of the Paper fails to cite any of the literature produced by NGOs in recent years on the subject of resettlement and dams in China, or a single publication by the most prominent critic of the Three Gorges Dam project inside China, Dai Qing. The author of the Paper also does not even mention the issue of corruption and its impact on the various aspects of dam-building, from project design to construction and management.

"China is borrowing huge sums from the World Bank, without the kind of accountability and transparency that is now expected for projects in other countries," said Sophia Woodman, HRIC Research Director. "The Bank even appears to endorse the restrictions that prevent people from having input into the development decisions that affect their lives. This is a recipe for human rights abuses committed in the name of development."

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