Using community-led activism and public opinion to stop harmful development

In a major victory for communities, the European Investment Bank recently declined to proceed with its appraisal of the Lilongwe Water Project, a proposed $290 million USD infrastructure project that would have adversely affected the homes and livelihoods of 5,100 people living in the Dedza and Lilongwe districts of Malawi. The announcement came not long after decisions by both the World Bank and the African Development Bank to withdraw from the proposed project, citing financial concerns and risks associated with resettlement.

The stated objective of the Lilongwe Water Project was to expand access to water services in the city of Lilongwe, Malawi and to improve the financial and operational performance of the Lilongwe Water Board, a government body tasked with providing potable water to Lilongwe city and its surrounding areas. The project was categorized as high risk and its most destructive impacts were linked to the construction of the Diamphwe Multipurpose Dam. The construction of the dam and reservoir meant thousands of households would lose their farmland, livelihoods, housing and access to common resources like schools, markets and graveyards. The dam also posed adverse and irreversible environmental impacts, affecting natural habitats and wildlife.

Image Credit: Elias Jika

Community meetings in Lilongwe and Dedza Districts, Malawi, May 2017. 

The International Accountability Project (IAP) first learned about the project through the Early Warning System, a program which monitors proposed development projects and exchanges accessible information and training materials with those likely to be affected. After an initial review, we reached out to a national advocacy organization, Citizens for Justice (CFJ), Malawi and prepared an analysis of human rights impacts and risks to communities. The analysis identified critical gaps in access to information and highlighted risks to communities’ rights to livelihood and housing.

"In May 2016, CFJ Malawi staff and volunteers met with over 700 people from affected communities in Dedza and Lilongwe districts and surveyed more than 120  them for a period of two weeks."

Since then, IAP has worked with local partners to support communities in their efforts to raise concerns with project planners and funders. Using community-led research, IAP partnered with Citizens for Justice, Malawi to administer a survey questionnaire to reach out to communities and obtain information about project design and implementation. In May 2016, CFJ Malawi staff and volunteers met with over 700 people from affected communities in Dedza and Lilongwe districts and surveyed more than 120  them for a period of two weeks.

The research revealed that community members had not been consulted during the planning phase of the project or in determining compensation and resettlement. In fact, 90% of survey respondents said they had learned about the project only after plans had been finalized. Even though documents claimed that the community was consulted, 76% of survey respondents said they did not have the information they needed to provide informed opinions about project plans. Our research also uncovered the use of coercive tactics to compel residents to participate; as one community member recounted, “Project developers forced us to declare our land and threatened that the land will not be compensated if one does not take part in the process.”

We used the findings of the research to organize meetings with the World Bank and the government of Malawi to urge them to address community concerns before the project was approved. As a result of these interventions, the decision to approve funding for the project was postponed twice by the Board of Directors of the World Bank, to allow the government of Malawi to respond. In October 2016, government officials reached out to IAP and CFJ promising to address and remedy the problems that we had highlighted.

In February 2017, the World Bank dropped its proposal to finance the project. A representative from the United States government noted that the overall financial and safeguard risk levels were higher than previously anticipated and had become unmanageable. The representative also highlighted that the resettlement costs were higher than suggested and that the government of Malawi had expressed a reluctance to provide fair compensation. The World Bank’s decision was preceded by a move by the African Development Bank to withdraw from the project due to high risk levels in the resettlement action plan.

These decisions followed months of advocacy and research by affected communities and local civil society to ensure project financiers exercise due diligence and prevent harm. Arguably, without research and advocacy from the community level, these decisions may have looked very different. The withdrawals from the project sent a powerful message to governments that the consent of those directly affected is indispensable in the pursuit of any development objective. In addition, the withdrawals drew the attention of other human rights activists, showing what is possible to achieve with concerted effort and community-level data.

To disseminate the results of our research, the communities who had been contacted in the initial survey participated in follow up community meetings. Copies of an infographic (in English and Chichewa) summarizing the project and its impacts and a community-led outreach report that had been used for advocacy were shared and discussed.

We quickly realized that most people who attended had no knowledge about the progress of the project and were in fact, waiting to be compensated and/or resettled. The information about why the project had been dropped by three development banks came as a shock to many. No one who participated in follow up community meetings had been informed by the government about the change in status of the project or the concerns by the development banks.

As documented in the community-led research reports, before receiving approval or securing funding, the government moved ahead with its plans to resettle communities. To prepare, some families borrowed money to purchase alternative land with the understanding they would be compensated by the government. Others reportedly were told by government officials to stop cultivating their land, since they would soon be moved. Given the significant gaps exposed in compensation and resettlement and the government moving ahead regardless of these shortfalls, communities now face the risk of acute food shortages and run the risk of losing their property to moneylenders.

Families are now requesting that the Malawi government make an official statement about the progress of the project and the status of compensation, resettlement, and livelihood restoration initiatives. But even as we continue to fight with communities for transparency and fair compensation, the cancellation of funding for the project has been a significant step in ameliorating the effects of a harmful project. Families no longer need to vacate their homes and livelihoods with little notice, but they face hardship resulting from reckless development planning which was done without them. Crucially, the decision not to fund the Lilongwe Water Project is a message to governments that, in order to determine the comprehensive costs and benefits of a project, communities likely to be affected must be consulted from the very beginning. Most critically, this outcome is a lesson that strategic and community-led activism can effectively draw the attention of international actors and stop the development of harmful projects.