by Carla Garcia Zendejas (Center for International Environmental Law)
The Center for International Environmental Law and the International Accountability Project designed the Early Warning System to inform people and communities about the existence of development projects that have a high likelihood of impacting their rights. This information involves much more than simply accessing crucial data regarding project design, location, scope, etc. In fact, it creates opportunities for communities to participate in and influence decisions that could impact their lives.
Community advocates know that avoiding development-related environmental harms and human rights abuses requires not only awareness about a project, but also participation in decision-making processes and the ability to advocate for rights. This inclusive development model is grounded in the inherent rights of all people to have access to information, access to participation, and access to justice – the three pillars of environmental democracy.
Of course, this information and advocacy pipeline facilitated by the research published through the EWS is only as good as the information the system is able to capture from what is posted within the development banks’ databases. We have identified gaps in and obstacles to obtaining complete information from some banks, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank; this led us to question the banks’ disclosure policies and their responsiveness to individual requests for information. In addition to tracking project documents and materials, we advocate for improved policies and procedures that govern access to information – with some early successes.
For many years, people worldwide have struggled not only to defend their right to information about decisions and policies that may affect their environment and human rights, but also to be considered primary stakeholders and sources of information necessary make these decisions. A major success in this struggle to cement the right to access information and the right to participate in decision-making processes occurred 25 years ago when more than 170 countries unanimously agreed on the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Aside from the crucial recognition that developed nations have a different level of responsibility for the state of global environmental degradation, and that priority should be given to address the needs of the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable; one of the most important outcomes of this agreement lies in one paragraph, namely:
Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.
Known as the access principles, these three pillars of environmental democracy – access to information, access to participation, and access to justice and remedy when harms occur – was recognized as a way to support communities throughout the different phases of environmental decision-making, implementation, and throughout the cycle of projects.
These principles have gained new momentum as Latin America and Caribbean governments are creating a Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters. The Agreement would create regional approval of Principle 10 and would legally bind governments to respect the three principles, which had previously been voluntary. The regional effort, led by 23 countries and dozens of civil society organizations, would also set higher standards for the region regarding environmental governance.
The right to information is inextricably linked to the right to participate and to seek remedy when we have been harmed by the outcomes of these decisions. These access rights are crucial for communities to be able to protect other rights, such as the rights to livelihood, food, water, property, and the right to live in a healthy environment. As communities and environmental defenders throughout the world work to defend existing rights, they are also faced with yet greater challenges and threats when they then occupy and participate in the spaces created by these rights. We are humbled by their commitment and their sacrifices, and we will continue to stand with them as they speak out on their own behalf to protect their rights.
Originally posted May 17, 2017 by the Center for International Environmental Law
Survey on Access to Information in Development
by Jocelyn Medallo (Center for International Environmental Law) February, 2016
In August 2015, the Early Warning System team set out to better understand how communities and organizations monitor development projects and how we, as a community, can better collaborate to ensure that development is rights-respecting and community-led.
Through a survey that we disseminated in English, Spanish and French, both online and in-person meetings, we asked questions targeted at understanding four main issues: (1) how communities and the organizations that support them monitor or become aware of development projects; (2) the institutions that groups prioritize; (3) the gaps in information, capacity and expertise that may hinder monitoring of harmful development projects; and (4) how the Early Warning System can better increase coordination to do this work globally.
We received 131 responses from 44 countries, with the majority of responses from Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa regions. The responses came from civil society groups who monitor development finance, transparency watchdogs, regional and local groups working on extractives, toxics, women’s groups, and environmentalists and human rights activists. While this was not a representative sample of all organizations monitoring developing finance, we went to great lengths to be inclusive through networks and known allies around the world. We will continue to reach out to organizations beyond this initial survey result.
Some of the results are startling.
The vast majority (79%) of learn about proposed development projects from partner organizations or civil society groups. Groups also rely on the media (63%) and email alerts (58%) to learn about development projects.
Over 77 % of respondents reported that they monitor the World Bank. Other banks that groups monitor include: the International Finance Corporation (40%), the African Development Bank (30%), Inter-American Development Bank (30%), the Asian Development Bank (25%), and the emerging Green Climate Fund (24%). Nearly 20 percent of respondents are monitoring national development banks and private/commercial banks.
Most importantly, the survey identified critical gaps in information and capacity that is needed by community groups and the organizations that support them. Despite development banks’ strides to increase access to information about their projects, critical information is often not available and/or inaccessible. This results in a stark disconnect, which hampers the ability of groups to monitor development projects, meaningfully participate in critical points in decision-making, and ultimately, to seek recourse for any harms caused by bank projects.
Groups also reported that they often do not have access to the following information:
With increased capacity and resources, 60 percent of respondents stated that they would like to continue to monitor the World Bank, which underscores that there is room to improve monitoring World Bank projects. In addition:
Even in its nascence, the information provided by the Early Warning System is already being used to bridge some these gaps. According to the survey, civil society groups are using the Early Warning System alerts to:
At the same time, the Early Warning System alerts can be improved. Some suggestions to improve the Early Warning System include:
Perhaps one of the most exciting results of the survey is that over 94 percent of respondents expressed interests in collaborating with the Early Warning System. Specifically:
There is still much we have do to in order to level the playing field and to shift the development model that favors pushing money out the door at the expense of communities and the environment. But, together, with your feedback and partnership, it is our hope that the Early Warning System can play an integral part.
Read a summary of the results below. Download the results in Spanish.
The Right to Information
By Jocelyn Medallo (Center for International Environmental Law) November, 2015
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxic Wastes recently stated, within the context of examining the impacts of hazardous materials and wastes on human rights, that “the right to information is a right in and of itself upon which free and democratic societies depend.” Without access to information, communities have little chance to meaningfully engage in and shape the development process in their countries.
When communities are not involved in the design and implementation of a development project, the impacts can be devastating, including environmental degradation, the dispossession of lands, the disruption of livelihoods, and further marginalization of groups that disproportionately bear the negative impacts of a project.
Unfortunately, by the time a community learns about the possible negative impacts of a development project, it can be too late. Key policy decisions by governments and funding agreements with public and private sources, both within and outside the country, have already been made. Project designs have been finalized. Perhaps, project implementation may have already begun. And, if and when communities learn about development projects, they face other barriers to access: the information is often incomplete or inaccessible, both in language and in the level of technicality. Further, project information may outline only the purported project benefits, failing to mention the potential costs to people and the environment. Rarely, if ever, does information provided by project financiers comprehensively identify the adverse impacts a project may have on human rights.
The Early Warning System aims to minimize the information gap by ensuring that communities have the information they need to understand proposed projects and their impacts early in the development process, to identify the banks and corporations involved in financing these projects, and to learn about advocacy strategies they can incorporate into their existing campaigns.