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"Ruining a Weekend for the Minister of Development"

urgewald staff member Knud Vöcking on endless frustration tolerance, amazing successes and overcoming language barriers in his work as a World Bank campaigner.
Knud Vöcking bei Protest gegen die Entwicklungsbank ADB in Frankfurt

(Interview: Moritz Schröder-Therre)
 

As a campaigner, you have particularly stubborn opponents in the form of the global development banks. How great is your capacity for suffering?

When it comes to the World Bank, it's almost endless, because I couldn't do my job otherwise. You really have to have an endless frustration tolerance here.
Sounds tough.

Why is that such a natural part of this job?

You simply experience a lot of setbacks, for example when projects are being discussed where I immediately know that it will backfire, that the environment will be destroyed, that people will have to suffer. And although we protest against it, such projects still take place again and again. For example, when I look at the World Bank's resistance to advice in pushing ahead with the construction of a new lignite-fired power plant in Kosovo, even though there was a huge amount of expert opinion proving that Kosovo could also cover its energy needs by investing in renewable energies and energy conservation. At such moments, I first despair. Then I swallow once and move on.

To summarize for people who don't know the subject as well as you do: What is the World Bank's mission and how well is it fulfilling it right now?

The World Bank's mission is to fight absolute poverty worldwide and to ensure shared prosperity, but in practice it is not doing that. Everything the World Bank is currently doing is to prepare the ground for investors and other financially powerful people in this world. Until the beginning of the new millennium, sparked by large-scale protests in the 1980s, there were small but steady improvements in the bank's standards of protection for the environment and human rights. After that, things completely turned around and the bank started to water down its standards. Much of its money now flows through the private sector, i.e., funds or banks. As a result, most people no longer even know that the World Bank is behind harmful projects.

The protection standards are simply bypassed.

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

How can it be that a development bank pumps millions into such projects?

It is increasingly concerned with getting money flowing as quickly as possible. The World Bank argues, among other things, with the competitive pressure from China. Today, for example, it rarely finances a specific dam, but rather an entire program for a region's energy infrastructure. The huge difference is, in a dam project all environmental and social standards apply, in a program loan there are no such standards. So the protection standards are simply bypassed.
Frustrating experience.

Why do you think you can change things for the better despite such wrong strategies of the World Bank?

If we didn't do this work, everything would be much worse. And at least there is always a sense of success. There is a nice anecdote. A few years ago, the IFC, the World Bank's subsidiary for doing business with the private sector, came out with new environmental and social standards. We protested strongly against this and also announced a demonstration in front of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Berlin. This put the then Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul on the spot. When I met her on another occasion, she took me by the side and said that we had ruined an entire weekend for her with this action. She had realized from our announcement that if she didn't take care of this, she would have to expect major public protests and unpleasant questions from the Bundestag as well. So instead, she spent a weekend dealing with the World Bank in Washington about it. In the end, the World Bank anchored labor rights in the new guideline for the first time. And it also introduced a stronger right to information and participation for indigenous peoples in particularly critical cases in projects with the private sector. These were important demands of ours, so it was quite a success. I knew then that my work was having an impact.

What were the other successes of your work?

Three years ago, we succeeded in getting the Bundestag to attach conditions to Germany's accession to the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We know from colleagues abroad that nothing similar has happened anywhere else in the world. Another example: the aforementioned private sector arm of the World Bank had a plan to finance Vale in Mozambique, a large Brazilian mining company that operates coal mines there. There were protests against it locally and internationally, so the World Bank felt compelled to announce that it would not finance the project. We had access to internal documents, however, and the project was still on the agenda. So at the World Bank annual meeting, I met with a contact from senior management and pointed this out to him. He said, oh yeah, he'd have to take care of that. In the next update of the plan, the project was no longer in it. So it was only now that it was officially not being pursued and was stopped.

Letters to the World Bank president have little effectIs there a recipe for success for this?

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

Is there a recipe for success for this?

There is no standard recipe. The bank is very clever when it comes to paralyzing its critics with endless discussions. It also tries to take the wind out of its critics' sails with its own public relations work. That means we have to be very flexible. What has little effect are letters to the World Bank president. One instrument that always works, however, and which we use very consistently, is our work with parliament. We take all the information we have to the relevant members of parliament. We support them with parliamentary questions and introduce them to people who are affected.

At Urgewald, you work in a team of three on such global issues. How does Urgewald manage to be heard internationally?

In some cases, we initiate major processes. In the case of the new infrastructure bank AIIB, we were able to work with the German Executive Director to ensure that there is a dialogue with civil society. Without the work of my colleague Korinna, that would not have happened. In addition, Urgewald is a backbone of European NGO networking. Other NGOs abroad see us as an important partner and always want us to be part of their projects. When other organizations or journalists in Germany want to know anything about the World Bank, they often ask us first. As an NGO, we have a unique selling point in Germany.  

You have been involved with multilateral development banks at Urgewald for over 16 years. Was there a project that particularly stirred you up during that time?

The first major project I was involved with at Urgewald was the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, which today transports oil through Chad to Cameroon to the Atlantic Ocean. A lot of things went wrong in the process, despite many indications and demands from civil society. The NGOs said to the World Bank staff, "If you want to make this a model project with a regional development plan, protection for indigenous peoples and a nature reserve, you first have to create the entire environment for it." The World Bank said it wanted to take everything into account. But for that, laws would have had to be changed in Chad and Cameroon, and functioning authorities would have been needed to implement the whole thing. When the first oil finally flowed, none of the promises had been implemented. The regional development plan for the oil region still does not exist. Some of the people there are poorer today than they were before. Chad has slipped to one of the last places in the United Nations Development Index. The additional money that Chad has received from the pipeline has been used, among other things, to finance the Darfur conflict, i.e., for armaments and to secure the power of a dictator instead of for development.

Among the 10,000 employees are some who are very well-intentioned, but sometimes I get the feeling it's a mixture of not wanting to and not being able to.

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

Does the Chad-Cameroon pipeline exemplify how the World Bank spends its money, or is it an isolated case?

It is absolutely not an isolated case. Another World Bank project that has upset me is Medupi in South Africa. There, the last water was dug out of an already very dry region to cool a new coal-fired power plant. To this day, the power plant has no sulfur filters because the state-owned company doesn't want to spend money on them. Or an actually well-intentioned project in Cambodia, where the aim was to distribute land rights. The result was that rich, politically well-connected people obtained land titles and suddenly hundreds of people who had lived on the land for generations were evicted from it. Or the Santa Rita dam project in Guatemala, where indigenous people were to be displaced by the dam even though they have land rights there. Or the so-called "slum upgrading" project in Indonesia, where, driven by the interests of real estate investors, people are supposed to lose their homes, with the help of units of the notorious paramilitary police. I could continue this list for a long time.

Is the World Bank unwilling or unable to prevent such scandalous projects?

The World Bank is a political institution composed of representatives of governments. Among the 10,000 employees are also those who are very well-intentioned, but sometimes I have the feeling that it is a mixture of not wanting to and not being able to. The World Bank, which has been financing development projects for over 70 years, should know where mistakes have been made and should not keep repeating them. So there is a bit of unwillingness behind it, partly for political reasons, partly for ideological and economic reasons.

How often do you have to travel to keep up to date with such scandals and work against them?

Too often. I'm actually traveling somewhere in the world every month for my campaign work. This year alone, I've had or have trips scheduled to the U.S., the Netherlands, Belgium, Georgia, Montenegro and Indonesia. I now know the metro map of Washington, where the World Bank has its headquarters, in my sleep. Only on my vacations do I consistently stay at home in Münsterland.

When it is clear that people's rights have been violated, we bring it to the attention of German politicians.

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

Now you can ask from a climate point of view, do we really need so many flights?

I would like to travel less, but unfortunately there is no way around it. The World Bank Annual Meetings, for example, are very important for two reasons. First, they give us the opportunity to meet with the decision-makers in the management of the World Bank and the executive directors of the member countries, who make all the important decisions. At the same time, many stakeholders from countries in the South also come to the Annual Meetings, whom we can meet there and with whom we can exchange ideas. This personal acquaintance is very important for mutual trust, especially when it comes to exchanging particularly sensitive or confidential information. It was only through such contacts, for example, that we became aware of problems with World Bank financing in Kosovo or Mozambique. Equally important is the exchange of ideas and information at the joint network meetings with partner NGOs, because we hardly achieve anything with multilateral banks on our own.

So is this exchange a kind of early warning system?

Unfortunately, there is no real early warning system yet, because the sheer volume of projects of the international development banks, of which the World Bank is only one, is enormous. It is almost impossible to keep track of everything, given the hundreds of new projects that the banks launch every week. Again and again, however, we are alerted to problems by our partner NGOs. In other cases, we discover cases that look problematic even in the development banks' project databases and then approach partner groups in the countries on the ground to find out what the situation is and how we can help.

How do you ensure that your local contacts are trustworthy? At a distance, this is a crucial question.

For example, if someone we don't know calls us from Zimbabwe, we first use our networks to find out who that is and whether the person is trustworthy. As a rule, however, we learn about scandal projects through friendly NGOs that we trust. In these cases, we also take a look at the project ourselves and then decide whether and how we can help.

What do you pay particular attention to in such cases?

We check whether the people concerned are referring to World Bank rules in their complaint and where these rules have been violated by the World Bank or other responsible parties. If it is clear that people's rights have been violated, we bring it to the attention of German politicians. We also always try to make the voices of those affected heard directly in Germany, so we invite them to talks with politicians in Berlin. This sensitizes the members of parliament and ministries much more than if we alone tell them about it. One example is a palm oil project by the Canadian company Feronia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, we were even able to get a German politician to see the controversial project and its consequences for himself on site.

There is a big language barrier for people affected in the South because everything is usually in English.

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

Do you also do your own field research?

For research, I was once in Nigeria and once in Mozambique. I would like to do that more often, but it is very expensive and time-consuming. That's why we mostly trust our good partners here, who work on the ground and know the situation very well.

How well does cooperation work across such large cultural groups and language barriers?

When it comes to a specific project, northern NGOs fully embrace the cultural characteristics of partners in the south in order to address the problems on the ground. It becomes more difficult when development banks want to introduce new environmental and social standards. Here, there is a major language barrier for those affected in the South, because everything is usually done in English. So if all the documents have to be translated into Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Bahasa or Quechua, for example, it becomes time-consuming. Another problem is time. If the affected people live in indigenous communities in Honduras or Indonesia, it simply often takes time for them to tell NGOs in the north in what form they want and need help. This is where the usual pace of work for northern NGOs slows down. But enduring this is necessary if we want to take the people on the ground with us. That's exactly what we're asking the World Bank to do, to involve those affected in their own cultural context.

In your view, what are currently the biggest hurdles for civil society to influence development banks?

The banks have a very cumbersome bureaucracy and it takes a lot of patience to achieve a change of course here. At the same time, there are incredibly large political and economic interests behind the projects. The saying is still true: millions of people fighting billions of dollars. The elites in the countries receiving the loans and global investors play a common game here time and again. In addition, there is strong corruption. In the end, the local people, who are supposed to be the focus of development, are seen more as an obstacle.

You are dealing with powerful opponents. Nevertheless, what were the greatest victories you were able to celebrate against them?

We have already managed to get the World Bank to withdraw from projects. For example, we helped to collect complaints against palm oil plantations, for which people were to be evicted from their land. This led to the complaints mechanism of the World Bank's private sector subsidiary taking a closer look at the cases. The results convinced the bank's then-president to impose a multi-year freeze on palm oil financing. Certain companies have since stopped receiving money from the World Bank.

Everything the World Bank is currently doing is to prepare the ground for investors and other financially powerful people in this world.

Urgewald campaigner Knud Vöcking

When you're so deep in the bowels of a huge development bank, can you actually still explain to people on the street here in Germany what you do and why it's important?

We try, of course, even if it's difficult. The subject matter is simply very complex. Among other things, we want to make people here aware of the human suffering that the banks keep creating with projects like this. We reach people's empathy when we report that for a dam that is meant to be a development project, thousands of people lose their land and live in even greater poverty than before. We also want to make clear how great Germany's responsibility is in international development financing. On average, Germany has a 4.5 percent stake in all major development banks. That may not sound like much at first, but it makes Germany one of only six countries that can appoint a single person to the World Bank's powerful board of directors. At the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was founded by China, Germany is even the fourth-largest shareholder.

What else would you like to achieve at the World Bank?

Everything the World Bank is currently doing is intended to prepare the ground for investors and other financially powerful people in this world. By holding up a mirror to the bank and making this public, I want to at least prevent the worst of this. I would also like to see the total immunity of the multilateral development banks finally called into question on a broad scale. At the moment, multilateral banks cannot be held accountable for their actions in any court of law.

If you could bake yourself a development bank, what would it look like?

It would have to be much more grassroots-oriented than the World Bank, i.e. it would have to work less with elites and finance ministries and less in the interest of the private sector. The bank would also have to have enough money, of course. And it would have to be accountable for its actions. For example, it needs a complaints body to ensure that problems are not only named, but also that compensation is paid to affected people. Civil society as a whole must be strongly involved. Instead of developing projects at the green table, the bank must ask people on the ground, what do you need, what are your needs? It should develop its projects together with civil society.

Kontakt

    Bild Anprechpartner   Knud Vöcking

    Knud Vöcking
    Campaigns on Multilateral Development Banks
    knud [at] urgewald.org
    +49 (0)2583/30492-14

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