Safeguards – the procedures that ensure projects and programs avoid, minimize and mitigate adverse impacts on people and the environment – are a crucial part of development work
Chances are that you’re reading this from your living room, taking a break from work or having finished yet another day working from home. For many of us, working from home presents few obstacles to productivity, given the technology at our fingertips.
Sometimes, however, getting the job done online is more challenging. This is particularly so in development work, much of which is done in communities and villages and requires extensive consultation.
Take safeguards policies, for example. Safeguards are the processes and procedures an organization like the Asian Development Bank applies to its operations to ensure the projects and programs it supports avoid, or when avoidance is not possible, minimize and mitigate adverse impacts on the environment and affected people. They are a crucial part of development work and a key part of each ADB investment. This includes our COVID-19 emergency work, where we must not forget the importance of ensuring that safeguards, as well as MDB’s accountability mechanisms, are applied appropriately.
Developing the policies that guide these processes and procedures is a time-consuming process, but a rewarding one. ADB is now embarking on a major update of its policy to ensure it meets the needs of a rapidly changing region and of affected communities, particularly women and vulnerable groups.
In a typical safeguards review by a development organization, staff will convene with different stakeholder groups across the world to gather feedback. Today, of course, they can’t travel and convene the conversations on which good safeguards policies depend.
Virtual outreach has helped. In some ways it’s more efficient. Without the burden of travel, people’s schedules are more flexible. Online platforms can empower those who are shy to speak out. End-to-end encryption can maintain confidentiality, while video calls can handle smaller group discussions and webinars are great for sharing information with large audiences.
Online meetings through platforms like Zoom can bring together people from different indigenous communities in the same meeting. This can mean a richer discussion than if we’d met separately, say with five participants in five different countries. In addition, it can facilitate the direct voice of citizens – giving them direct access to forums involving governments and development organizations.
But technology has limitations. ADB works in some of the most remote regions of Asia and the Pacific and many beneficiaries and affected people are not online or have limited connectivity. Translation can be tricky. Communities may face other barriers to participation – particularly in emergency situations or due to their isolation.
This can require imaginative solutions. For consultations on one ongoing project in a mountain community in Nepal, we are planning to bring a satellite phone and other high-tech communications equipment to the village to enable a conversation with our staff in Kathmandu and Manila. It’s not the best way to do consultations and it may not even work. But we know consultation is key to project success so we are going to try.
There is simply no substitute for hard-earned experience and face-to-face meetings to deeply understand what people on the ground are thinking and feeling about the projects we implement.
What’s missing from purely tech-based solutions is the human element. There is simply no substitute for hard-earned experience and face-to-face meetings to deeply understand what people on the ground are thinking and feeling about the projects we implement.
Civil society organizations are an invaluable partner for development organizations like ADB as they try to reach the “last mile” of project-affected people. With movement so restricted during the pandemic, their role is now more important than ever. But even in a pandemic-free world, there is a compelling argument for them playing a central role in safeguards policy development. Why is this?
For a start, these groups usually have deep local community networks and can act as facilitators in identifying relevant stakeholders—bringing them to the table to share their experiences. They have cultural ties and understandings we simply don’t have, and this can translate into meaningful consultations and more thoughtful policy deliberations.
For example, two local civil society organizations in Mongolia–Oyu Tolgoi Watch and Land Acquisition and Citizens’ Rights and Interests–have played an instrumental role over the last 2 years in organizing roundtable discussions between ADB and 100 families affected by an urban development project. These groups supported the affected people throughout a negotiation process, which led to an agreed course of action with the government. Interestingly, because of the trust of the affected people in the groups, the complainants also shared concerns about their challenges in engaging with the government, allowing ADB to take quick actions before the issues became more serious.
Second, civil society can amplify the voices of project-affected people through forums like ADB’s Accountability Mechanism, which provides a channel for people adversely affected by projects to seek solutions to problems or report alleged non-compliance with operational policies and procedures. This mechanism will also be examined to take into account any changes in ADB’s Safeguard Policy, and local civic organizations will be key to informing this process. The years they’ve spent with affected communities are a precious resource to show what parts of the mechanism are working well and how the policy can be more effective.
Finally, we appreciate that civil society often takes a critical view of our work, a view that can sometimes differ from other stakeholders such as the governments that make up our shareholders or our private sector clients. It is essential that we listen and discuss and fully understand these views, so we can be confident we’re making the right decisions and taking a balanced approach.
Technology can connect. The next step is to engage and listen to each other. By doing this, development organizations and civil society can create a better future for the communities they serve.