Activism is fraught with danger

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
When completed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile will be the largest hydropower plant in Africa.
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For decades, the neoliberal development model has been accepting of the repression of human rights. It is time for a paradigm shift.

According to the Business and Human Rights Centre, in the context of company activities, the year 2019 alone witnessed 572 attacks on human rights defenders and environmental activists, of whom about a third were women. The violations range from instant dismissal – such as in Bangladesh, where 12,000 textile workers were fired after protests – to intimidation, police violence and murder. In most cases, the perpetrators face no consequences, as governments and companies close ranks in the name of "development". People who defend themselves against land grabs, the poisoning of rivers or the destruction of their livelihoods are often lumped together and branded "enemies of development" by the governments and companies concerned.

Development banks are often involved in such activities. A report published in 2019 by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development explores the role of development banks in 25 infrastructure and development projects associated with massive repression. Eleven of the projects studied involved funding through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), while six were funded by other World Bank agencies. The case studies include, among other things, police repression of a strike in South Africa against an IFC-funded mining company in 2012, known as the Marikana massacre – 34 people were killed and it is deemed the bloodiest deployment of violence by a South African regime since 1960; the murder of Gloria Capitan in 2016, for activism against extensive air pollution by IFC-funded coal projects in the Philippines, and the imprisonment of Pastor Ormot Agwa, who had supported Ethiopia’s indigenous Anuak people in their complaint against the World Bank over eviction from their land. The report concludes that in most cases development banks do nothing against the repression entailed in projects funded by them. Reactions come too late and do not go far enough. The activists concerned rarely obtain compensation and remain exposed and vulnerable to further repression. The governments and firms involved in human rights violations often continue to receive development bank funding, even after acts of repression and reprisal become public.

Recent years have seen the further curtailment of the rights of civil society in many countries, making it ever more difficult and dangerous for activists to challenge the policies of their government or of supposed development projects. Measures to combat the current corona pandemic are exacerbating this trend in many countries. This makes it all the more important for companies, investors and development banks to work to counter this trend by taking affected population groups on board in their projects from the very start and acting clearly to safeguard human rights. Still, in March 2020 a group of 176 international investors with over 4.5 trillion US dollars in assets under management addressed an open letter to the 95 worst performing companies on human rights due diligence, urging them to assume their responsibility. In parallel, the World Bank published a statement against reprisals and retaliation.

But beautiful rhetoric alone is not enough. The concept of development must be discussed critically, alternative development models that diverge from the neoliberal, resource-intensive growth model must be given consideration. The UN 2030 Agenda can serve as a starting point. It offers a holistic view of development in which all countries – rich and poor– are urged to reduce inequality and promote environmental, social and economic sustainability; and according to the leave no one behind principle, the needs of the poorest and most marginalised in society should be at the heart of development.

A brief history of «development»

kl. US President Harry S. Truman in addressing the nation in 1949 said for the first time that rich developed nations should use their progress and advances to support poorer "underdeveloped" countries in their improvement and growth. That signalled the birth of a linear, depoliticised and entirely capitalistic picture of development. In it, the West finds itself a few steps ahead of the poor countries on the development path thanks to hard work, efficiency and innovation. Slavery, imperialism and colonialism, which were instrumental in this "development progress", have been left out altogether. Poor countries are now expected to create the right political and economic environment and bring themselves closer to the living standards of the wealthy nations with the latter’s generous assistance. From the very beginning, the development policy conditions promoted by the West were of course oriented toward preserving access for Western firms and governments to the indispensable commodities and resources of poor countries; besides, the so-called "development aid" was mostly tied to conditions that guaranteed Western firms a market in poor countries – a type of aid for which the term “tied aid” became consecrated.

There are several competing concepts of development today, and development aid has changed radically. It has by and large diverged from the tied-aid principle and is now more oriented towards cooperation with the local people, whence the description “development cooperation”, a term that never fully came into its own in general speech.

The dominant development model being promoted by most governments and influential international institutions – primarily the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – is still nevertheless based on attracting foreign direct investment and on trade liberalisation, which should lead to the overarching goal – that of economic growth. Developing countries are being "assisted" in attracting investors to large-scale infrastructure, agriculture and energy projects, often aimed primarily at export promotion. Governments for their part commit to eliminating protectionist trade regulations, promoting privatisation and making land and resources available to investors on good terms. Very often it is also circles close to the government that benefit most from the presence of foreign investors through widespread corruption, and who are happy to turn a blind eye when it comes to safeguarding human rights and the environment.