The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has refused to release a critical study on the impact its $141.6 million railway project is having on thousands of Cambodian families because disclosure of the report could hurt its relationship with the government, an ADB spokeswoman said.
Raising concerns about the ADB’s decision to bury the report’s findings, housing rights groups released a statement Monday criticizing the bank’s lack of transparency and public accountability.
The controversy dates back to 2012, when the ADB commissioned a renowned resettlement expert, Michael Cernea, to examine how the rail project was affecting the more than 4,000 families living on and along the lengths of dilapidated track, which is slated for rehabilitation, and which required their relocation.
Dr. Cernea is a former adviser for the World Bank on social policy and his research for the ADB was conducted amid persistent complaints that Cambodian villagers were worse off after their relocation, pushed into debt and shunted into ill-equipped resettlement sites as a result of the railway project.
After having its initial request for access to the report denied, Inclusive Development International (IDI) appealed to the ADB’s Public Disclosure Advisory Committee on February 16. The ADB committee informed IDI that its appeal had also been rejected on Friday.
“ADB has long recognized that transparency and accountability are essential to development effectiveness and to ADB’s ability to achieve its vision of an Asia and Pacific free of poverty,” ADB spokeswoman Ann Quon said in the letter.
But releasing Dr. Cernea’s findings on the rail project, Ms. Quon said, would further delay a project that is already behind schedule and over budget, damage the ADB’s long-term relationship with the government, and “compromise the integrity of ADB’s deliberative decision-making process.”
“Accordingly, the harm that would result from disclosure of the entire report would be substantial, immediate and likely irreparable, and outweighs the benefit of disclosure,” she added.
“Because the sensitive internal information and communications that would give rise to such harm affects substantial portions of the report, disclosure of the entire report is denied.”
In its statement, IDI—which was joined by local housing rights NGOs Equitable Cambodia and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut—claimed that its sources said the report was “highly critical” of the resettlement process and called the ADB’s decision to keep it hidden “the ultimate insult.”
“It is the ultimate insult by ADB to the families whom they have upended and impoverished with this project that they aren’t even entitled to know what a global resettlement expert thinks about their situation,” IDI managing associate David Pred said.
“Perhaps this is because Dr. Cernea’s take is totally inconsistent with the whitewashed description of the resettlement situation that ADB’s spin doctors have portrayed,” he said.
Though the southern stretch of the railway project between Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is largely complete, work on the 338-km Phnom Penh to Serei Saophoan section is far behind schedule and lacks funds.
Both the ADB and the Australian government’s foreign aid arm co-funding the project, AusAid, have sold the railway’s rebirth as a key to bringing down the cost of transport and of doing business across the country.
They have also placed responsibility for the roughly 1,200 families the project will ultimately see evicted on the government, while pledging extra money to help the families supplement their diminished incomes after eviction.
Equitable Cambodia spokesman Eang Vuthy questioned whose interests the bank was really worried about harming.
“Harmful to whom?” he asked. “I really wonder what they are hiding that could be so harmful. It seems that ADB is putting its own interests ahead of the public interest and the interest of people that have been harmed by the railway project.”
The ADB’s decision was not a complete loss for the NGOs, though. In her letter to IDI, the bank’s Ms. Quon said ADB president Haruhiko Kuroda had personally decided to override the committee’s denial to allow the release of even Dr. Cernea’s recommendations.
Ms. Quon summarized those recommendations as follows: eliminate the risk the families face of losing their new housing plots; do more to help them earn money; and to focus on resolving the project’s “economic legacy issues.”
Dr. Cernea also recommended restructuring the government’s Inter-Ministerial Resettlement Committee’s monitoring and follow-up process.
The ADB’s country team on Monday said Dr. Cernea’s report was only one of several ongoing efforts the bank was making to improve the resettlement process as a result of the rail project.
“The Government, with the [ADB] and [AusAid], continues to work to improve resettlement by providing access to start-up financing for businesses, grants for emergencies, health insurance, and training in money management,” the ADB’s Phnom Penh office said in an email.
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