The World Bank’s board of directors on Tuesday backed an independent report finding that mistakes it made planning and carrying out a $24.3 million project helped strip thousands of Phnom Penh residents of their land rights.
“Ambiguities in the project design […] in part contributed to the harm that [Boeng Kak lake residents] are facing,” said the report, submitted to the board in November but released only this week. “Management failed to act on information when the problems arising in the [lake] area were first brought to its attention.”
It remained unclear yesterday what anyone would do for the 2,000 lakeside families evicted so far as a result of the Bank’s admitted failures.
Though the government has previously rejected the Bank’s concerns about evictions at the lake, Tuesday’s concerns appeared to add significant weight to complaints about the government’s hard-edged handling of the development.
In a Jan 21 reply also released this week, the Bank’s country team warned that future Bank support to Cambodia could be jeopardized unless the government stepped up efforts to help those evicted.
“We are deeply troubled and frustrated about the people who are being forced from their homes,” Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a statement released the same day. “We have repeatedly called on the government to end the evictions. We are seeking a positive government response.”
In its statement, the Bank said officials would seek “high-level” talks with the government to help the families and that the Bank’s local office would report back on its progress in 60 days.
At the center of the case is the Bank’s Land Management and Administration Project, or LMAP. Kicked off in 2002, its aim was nothing short of helping the government bring a sector turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge—who outlawed private property in the late 1970s—in line with international standards. Along the way, it sought to issue a million land titles to mostly poor Cambodians by 2010.
But as the country team’s own reports later revealed, the project ran into trouble nearly from the start.
In 2009, residents of Boeng Kak lake filed a formal complaint with the Bank’s independent inspection panel, claiming LMAP had arbitrarily failed to help them gain land titles and that the Bank was doing too little to stop their evictions.
City Hall granted CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s development firm a 99-year lease to the lake and its shores in 2007, automatically slating the area’s 4,000 families for eviction. But residents and housing rights groups say the deal broke the country’s 2001 Land Law, which gave residents who could prove five years’ residency the right to claim titles. Many lake residents insist they can. A 2002 agreement between the Bank and government also granted anyone living on state land protection from forced eviction and fair compensation if resettled.
But residents say the choices on offer—a relocation site far from their jobs or an $8,500 payout—are far from fair. Protests to demand better have gone nowhere and sometimes been beaten back by armed police.
When the Bank’s country team tried encouraging the government to stick to the agreement, the government pulled the plug on the project. That was in September 2009, three months before LMAP was set to end.
Lake residents said that was too little, too late. On Tuesday, the Bank’s board of directors agreed.
“Management did not adequately follow up on strengthening public awareness…and there were delays in implementing dispute resolution mechanisms,” the board said in its statement. “Management was too slow to respond to the evictions.”
In its action plan, which the Bank board backed on Tuesday, the Bank’s Cambodia country team proposed talking the government into a needs assessment for affected families, mitigating the home flooding the residents have blamed on the project, and other steps.
The country team’s director and manager, the only two authorized to comment, were abroad and unavailable yesterday.
In its January report to the board, the team admitted its attempts to work with the government on the lake since LMAP ended had not come far. With officials refusing even to concede any link between LMAP and the evictions, it said, “the current state of the dialogue with the government on these issues has diminished the Bank’s ability to facilitate solutions,” leaving it with “limited options.”
But unless the government bends, it suggests that the Bank’s support to Cambodia could start to slip.
“If there is continued lack of willingness to cooperate on addressing the [lake] resettlement issue,” it said, “management would anticipate reviewing all current and proposed support to the government in the land sector and carefully take into account the government’s position in considering the magnitude and focus of future Bank support to Cambodia.”
This is what some NGOs are asking for.
“Now is the time for the Board to authorize the president to take decisive action and make it clear that the World Bank is more concerned about accountability and fighting poverty than it is about preserving its relationships with corrupt client states,” said David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia.
“If there continues to be a lack of willingness on the Cambodian government’s part to cooperate with the Bank in implementing solutions for the people at the lake, then the Bank should provide a unilateral remedy in order to demonstrate its own accountability for the harms,” he said.
But should the state bow out, Mr Pred added, “there would also need to be repercussions for the government’s refusal.”
Non Theany, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Land Management, declined to comment on the prospect that the Bank might cut back on its aid over the lake.
But she stood by the government position that land titles were never meant to go to residents living on disputed ground.
“The government implements the law of the government,” she said. “When there is a dispute we cannot give them land title. We cannot offer land titles to land that has two owners.”
She declined to explain how a senator’s development firm did gain ownership.
“They say it is wrong. It is their right. But the government has reasons,” she said. “The government has not evicted the people. The government has offered them new legal settlements…. They may lose profits now, but they will get more profit in the future and will thank the government.”