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Ethiopia: Forced Villagization and the Promoting Basic Services Project

IDI has assisted Anuak indigenous people from Ethiopia’s Gambella region to submit a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel implicating the Bank in grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian Government.

Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian

The complaint alleges that the Anuak people have been severely harmed by the World Bank-financed and administered Promoting Basic Services Project (PBS), which has provided 2 billion USD in sectoral budget support for the provision of basic services to the Ethiopian Government since 2006. A legal submission accompanying the complaint, prepared by IDI, presents evidence that the PBS project is directly and substantially contributing to a program of forced villagization, which took place in the Gambella Region between 2010-2013.

IDI’s submission contains testimonies that explain how public servants, whose salaries are paid by PBS, were involved in implementing the villagization plans.  It also shows how villagization is the principle vehicle through which PBS was implemented in Gambella during this period.

Villagization also occurred in four other regions of Ethiopia, including Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, Afar, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR).  Up to 4 million people in Gambella and the other four regions of Ethiopia were designated for relocation between 2010-2013

According to the Villagization Action Plan of the Gambella regional government, villagization is a voluntary process, which aims to increase access to basic services, improve food security, and “bring socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people.”  The services and facilities supported through PBS are precisely the services and facilities that are supposed to be provided at new settlement sites under the Villagization Program.

However, the people affected by villagization in Gambella, who have amassed in refugee camps in Kenya and South Sudan, report that the program has been far from voluntary.  Rather, they report a process involving intimidation, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in military custody, rape and extra-judicial killing.  Dispossessed of their fertile, ancestral lands and displaced from their livelihoods, Gambellans have been forced into new villages with few of the promised basic services and little access to food or land suitable for farming, which has in some cases led to starvation.  Meanwhile, many of the areas where people have been forcibly removed have been awarded to domestic and foreign investors.

One complainant detailed his experience in a letter to the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, which was quoted in IDI’s submission:

“The relocation was not voluntary, I was not asked if I wanted to be relocated nor did I give my consent to being moved. My village was forced by the government to move to the new location against our will. I refused and was beaten and lost my two upper teeth. My brother was beaten to death by the soldiers for refusing to go to the new village. My second brother was detained and I don’t know where he was taken by the soldiers.”

IDI wrote to the Bank’s Board of Executive Directors on September 24, 2012 urging them not to approve PBS Phase III until a thorough and impartial investigation has been conducted by the Inspection Panel into the links between PBS and forced villagization and robust safeguards and accountability mechanisms are put in place to ensure that PBS funds are not used to harm marginalized and vulnerable Ethiopian groups.

In a statement released on the same day, IDI Managing Director David Pred said, “the shear scale of the forcible dislocation of people in Gambella by the villagization program and the gross human rights abuses that have accompanied it are indicative of crimes against humanity under international law.”

“Bank funds are helping to make possible the villagization process which is violently uprooting tens of thousands indigenous people from their ancestral lands.  The evidence now in the possession of the World Bank Executive Directors should give them serious pause tomorrow when they meet to consider whether or not to approve a third phase of the PBS project, knowing that their decision could perpetuate these crimes,” he added.

“The PBS project’s aims to expand access to and improve the quality of basic services including education, health, and water supply are indisputably laudable,” said IDI Legal Director Natalie Bugalski.  “However, forced relocation as a means to deliver basic services, and the use of international public development funds to carry it out, is totally unacceptable.”

“The Bank is bound by its operational policies to ensure that its programs – no matter how beneficial they may be for majority of the population in borrower countries – are not coming at the expense of the basic rights of minorities,” she added.

The complaint was registered by the World Bank Inspection Panel on October 11, 2012.  Following the receipt of the Management Response to the Request for Inspection on November 19, 2012, the Panel conducted its eligibility visit from January 8-14, 2013. The Panel presented its Eligibility Report and Recommendation to the Board on February 8, 2013, recommending that an investigation be carried out.  The Board approved this recommendation on July 12, 2013.

The Inspection Panel’s investigation report was released on February 27, 2015, following a discussion by the Board of Directors. The Panel report concluded that the involuntary taking of land and use of force and intimidation were not consequences of PBS and that the Bank is not responsible for these alleged harms.  However, the Panel found that there was an “operational interface” between PBS and the Villagization Program and the Bank did not assess and mitigate the risks arising from villagization, particularly in the delivery of agricultural services to the Anuaks.

Inclusive Development International has accused the World Bank of suppressing damning evidence of widespread human rights abuses in connection with its flagship program in Ethiopia.  The Inspection Panel unilaterally decided not to investigate the alleged involvement of the bank project in the forced relocations, providing no sound basis for its decision. Instead it limited the scope of its investigation to the more palatable aspects of the complaint, leaving aside the central issue at hand. The Panel then refused to return to the refugee camps during its investigation to interview the complainants, among whom were former Ethiopian civil servants tasked with implementing the villagization program.  On March 2, 2015, IDI released leaked transcripts of interviews conducted by the Inspection Panel during its investigation mission in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. This evidence appears to have been shelved in order to exonerate the bank and one of it biggest clients of responsibility for the mass forcible population transfers that occurred between 2010-2013.   In April 2015, IDI released a detailed analysis of the Inspection Panel’s investigation into the Ethiopia Request for Inspection.

In its press release following the Board’s adoption of the Bank’s action plan in response to the Inspection Panel investigation report, the Bank committed to “do more to support inclusive development in Ethiopia, including for Anuaks and other vulnerable communities in Gambella.”  The Bank says that it will “continue to work with the Government of Ethiopia to help develop solutions to complex sustainable natural resource and land management issues, including:

  • Support for small holder farmers in Gambella under forthcoming operations coming to the Board;
  • Ensuring that all national programs to improve the quality of services and alleviate hunger help to address the needs of all people across Gambella;
  • The World Bank will strengthen its work on improving the development prospects of refugees and other people living in borderland areas such as Gambella as part of its new Horn of Africa Initiative, launched by President Kim in October 2014; and
  • A proposal for IDA funding of $80 million for a Public Financial Management operation, which would complement the    work done under PBS, will be submitted for Board approval later this year.”

IDI believes these actions as woefully insufficient and that the World Bank has squandered an opportunity to put in place meaningful measures to ensure that its resources are used to benefit and not to abuse Ethiopia’s marginalized populations.

Related Materials

Request for Inspection and IDI legal and policy analysis (24 September  2012)

IDI Letter to the World Bank Board of Directors Regarding Approval of PBS III (24 September 2012)

Inspection Panel Eligibility Report and Recommendation (8 February 2013)

Management Response to the Request for Inspection (19 November 2012)

Inspection Panel Investigation Report (27 February 2015)

Management Report and Recommendation (27 February 2015)

Open Letter from Anuak Ethiopian Refugees to the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim (31 January 2015)

IDI Letter to World Bank Board of Directors Regarding PBS III Management Action Plan in Response to Ethiopia Investigation (19 February 2015)

Leaked Transcripts of Inspection Panel Interviews in Gambella, Ethiopia (February 2014)

IDI Analysis of World Bank Inspection Panel Ethiopia Investigation (April 2015)

News and Updates

Joint Statement on the One Year Anniversary of Ethiopia’s Arrest of Omot Agwa Okwoy, Ashinie Astin, and Jamal Oumar Hojele, 15 March 2016

Ethiopia:  World Bank translator, Activists Face Trial:  Activists heading for food workshop charged with terrorism, 22 September 2015

Rights Denied:  New evidence ties World Bank to human rights abuses in Ethiopia, Huffington Post / ICIJ, 16 April 2015

World Bank chief vows stronger oversight of resettlement policies, Ian Talley, Wall Street Journal, 5 March 2015

World Bank Inspection Panel Press Release:  Panel Comments on Inclusive Development International Press Release on Ethiopia PBS III Investigation, 2 March 2015

Inclusive Development International Press Release:  World Bank whitewashes Ethiopia human rights scandal, 2 March 2015

World Bank Press Release:  World Bank Board Discusses Inspection Panel Case in Ethiopia, 27 February 2015)

Ethiopia: human rights groups criticize UK-funded development programme, by Harry Davies and James Ball, The Guardian, 20 January 2015

Leaked report says World Bank violated own rules in Ethiopia, Sasha Chavkin, ICIJ, 20 January 2015

Ethiopia’s villagisation program fails to bear fruit, by William Davieson, The Guardian, 22 April 2014

Ethiopia’s rights abuses ‘being ignored by US and UK aid agencies,’ by Claire Provost, The Guardian, 17 July 2013

World Bank Board approves investigation into allegations of bankrolling human rights abuses in Ethiopia, 16 July 2013

East Africans told to resettle:  Are these land grabs or progress, by William Davieson, Christian Science Monitor, 5 June 2013

Ethiopia refuses to cooperate with World Bank funding probe, by William Davieson, Bloomberg, 28 May 2013

The World Bank Must Stop Underwriting Human Rights Abuses in Ethiopia, by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski, Terra Nullius, March 21, 2013

World Bank told to investigate links to Ethiopia ‘villagisation’ project, The Guardian, 19 March 2013

Why are we funding abuse in Ethiopia, by Helen Epstein, New York Review of Books, 14 March 2013

Watch Oakland Institute video Lower Omo: Local Tribes Under Threat, which details the human rights impacts of land investment and the villagization process in Lower Omo and Gambella, Ethiopia


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