World Bank ‘Feature Story’ Sings Praises of Criticized Project

Following the release of a damning report on the failures of a donor-funded project to turn some of Cambodia’s poorest families into prospering landowners, the World Bank on Friday published its own story singing the scheme’s praises.

On Wednesday, rights group Licadho released the results of a monthslong study of a seven-year, $12.7-million project funded mostly by the Bank that ended in March after private plots of land were issued to 3,148 families that had previously possessed little or no land of their own.

Licadho said many of the new plots were unfarmable due to poor soil, forest cover or ownership disputes, leaving many families no better off than they were before.

Neither the Bank nor Germany’s foreign aid agency, GIZ, which funded a part of the project, has replied to requests for comment about the study.

On Friday, however, the World Bank published its own “feature story” about the project—Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development, or LASED. The story neither mentioned the Licadho study nor addressed any of the group’s claims directly. Instead, it depicted the project as a complete success and quoted members of resettled families who had only positive things to say about it.

The Bank’s story also quoted a commune chief in Kompong Speu province who recalled some villagers “breaking into tears of joy when they learned they were selected to receive land.” The Kompong Speu site is, in fact, not part of the LASED project, but rather a partner project funded by Japan.

The story claimed, too, that all 3,000-plus families that were awarded land had been resettled on their new plots—contradicting Licadho’s findings that some of the eight project sites were being occupied by fewer than half of the families given plots there as recently as March, either because they left in frustration or never moved in.

A visit to one of the sites last week by reporters, the Ti Po II concession in Kompong Thom province, corroborated Licadho’s findings.

Of the 300 families officially awarded land on Ti Po II, residents said that just 100 to 200 were living there now. They said many families either took one look at the site and turned around or attempted to farm their plots and left because they could not make anything grow.

After three years on the concession, some families said they were no better off than before. Even families that were generally positive about the project and grateful for the new land said they were still unable to make a living off their farms.

Last week, Land Management Ministry spokesman Cheam Sophalmakara also described the project as a resounding success and dismissed Licadho’s claims as ill informed. On Sunday, he added that 250 of the 3,000-plus families had been awarded land titles.

The Land Management Ministry and World Bank are preparing for a second phase to the project that would make improvements to the eight existing sites and add seven more. Licadho says the first phase has failed on too many counts to serve as a model worth copying.

On Sunday, the rights group said the Bank’s high opinion of its work risked dooming a second phase to the mistakes of the first.

“To anyone who has visited the sites and spoken with LASED land recipients, the World Bank’s continued narrative of resounding success is clearly detached from the reality of the situation,” said director Naly Pilorge. “The narrative is regrettable and counterproductive to correcting the failures of this project.”

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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