I woke up not knowing what time it was, and not even sure where I was. My watch still gave the time in Europe, and the room was unfamiliar. Finally, it dawned on me: it was five in the morning and I was in a small inn in Washington, DC, walking distance from the World Bank, which would be my target in the next few days. It was Annual Meeting time again.
Once I had my bearings, I began worrying whether my colleague from Pakistan had arrived. Three years ago, Mustafa, who lives in Sindh, Pakistan, had filed a request with the World Bank Inspection Panel to investigate a Bank-funded drainage project in his neighborhood. Now, he was to come to the Annual Meetings of the World Bank to tell the story of the Bank’s misguided response to the Inspection Panel investigation and to give a first-hand account of the many problems the project had created on the ground.
Filing the request three years ago had been difficult enough. Understanding that the hardships of the people were linked to a large drainage canal funded by the World Bank was one thing. But understanding how to register complaints about such projects was quite another. Mustafa and his friends had to document how breaches in the canal that destroyed their grazing land were linked to World Bank policy violations. Lengthy World Bank documents, cryptically entitled OP or BP, had to be studied, discussed and linked to the problems on the ground. In the end, six men, including Mustafa, and one woman submitted a claim to the World Bank’s Pakistan office on their own behalf, and on behalf of “others who live in the area known as district Badin, Sindh, Pakistan.” Their claim stated that the World Bank had violated its own policies during the planning and implementation of the National Drainage Program in Sindh.
More than three years after submitting the document, the requesters understood that filing the claim was not enough. On the ground, nothing had changed. They decided that one of them had to travel to the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington to push for action. Mustafa was chosen to go.
On this October morning, it was not at all sure that he would make it to Washington. An earlier plan to travel to Washington in the summer had fallen apart only after meetings had been arranged, hotel rooms booked, flight tickets bought and local partners alerted. Getting a visa for a Pakistani to come to the US proved more time-consuming than we had anticipated, and we had to postpone. This time, the visa was in hand, and partners in Washington were excited that they would finally meet Mustafa. World Bankers were preparing to meet an outspoken opponent of a high-profile Bank project. Yet, just a week before the planned meetings, a political hurdle again jeopardized the trip. Would he be able to join me for the meetings and debates at the World Bank?
In the breakfast room in the basement of the historic inn, I joined the other guests at a large table for breakfast. There, a thin man with brown hair in a pink shirt smiled at me. Mustafa had arrived.
Our first meeting, shortly after breakfast, was in the main conference room of a Washington-based foundation, packed with 50 people: activists, lawyers, World Bank Inspection Panel members, academics and NGO colleagues from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Bank Information Center and the Center for International Environmental Law who, together with International Rivers, had organized the meeting. Every seat in the room was taken: people were eager to hear Mustafa’s story. As Mustafa was not the only speaker, he, and everyone else, was only given 10 minutes to speak. He pointedly joked that he was given a minute of speaking time for every 1,000 miles he had travelled.
In the end, he managed to get almost twice the time allotted to him. Charming while at the same time straight to the point, he won the audience over in seconds. He movingly described how life in the Indus delta had changed after the construction of the canal, how families who used to have 80 buffaloes now had to do with only one and how others had moved to slums in big cities because they could no longer grow anything on their barren fields.
Inside the Bank, there was also great interest in Mustafa’s story. He talked about the wetlands that used to support hundreds of different fish and bird species that are now, in the aftermath of the faulty Bank project, biologically dead. He talked about how people who live near the canal are afraid of being flooded out and losing their homes and their animals. Mustafa talked to World Bank Executive Directors, to staff members and to managers responsible for the drainage project. He talked with the Inspection Panel who had studied the project and its impacts for almost two years. He talked of how the Bank had so far done nothing to redress the problems caused by its project.
In the end, it seemed that Mustafa had achieved something. He started to get calls and commitments. World Bank Executive Directors promised to send an independent mission to Pakistan to assess the situation. Bank staffers promised to increase the budget for development projects in the area if people had good ideas. And managers promised to make sure that things would move forward.
Yet, more than a month after leaving Washington, Mustafa has not heard back from anyone at the Bank on their promises and commitments. These commitments are even more critical today, in this time of political instability and crackdown on civil society, the media and judiciary in Pakistan. So far, Mustafa has nothing concrete to offer to the other requesters who welcomed him home after his trip to Washington. Sadly, their message to the World Bank sent earlier this year still holds true: “After all these efforts and repeated demands, the poor communities of the area are still waiting for justice.”