3 things on ADB's to-do list, according to civil society organizations

A member of civil society asked Asian Development Bank President Takehiko Nakao a question at the 51st ADB Annual Meeting in Manila, Philippines. Photo by: ADB

MANILA — The Asian Development Bank will finalize its new long-term strategy in July, but Strategy 2030 still needs plenty of tweaking, according to civil society organizations present at ADB’s 51st Annual Meeting in Manila.

At the bank’s 50th anniversary last year in Yokohama, an activist handed ADB President Takehiko Nakao a photo book titled “A Visual Testimony of Asian Development Bank’s 50 Years of Destruction.” This year, the focus of exchanges between CSO actors and the bank centered around Strategy 2030 and its inclusion of “a lot of nice candy words like ‘eco-sensitive approach,’” said Titi Soentoro, executive director of Indonesia-based NGO Aksi. “What does that mean?”

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The CSO community has worked with ADB for years to streamline formal structures of seeking redress to grievance or citing safeguard issues on environment, explained Rayyan Hassan, executive director at the NGO Forum on ADB. “But once you go down to the project level, we have challenges still.”

Nakao received applause when he extended the time for questions in the CSO and ADB management meeting, a regular feature of the annual meetings when he addresses a crowd of INGO and CSO representative and community members affected by the bank’s projects. But a few more minutes with the president likely isn’t enough to appease activists worried about what they see as the bank’s lack of oversight on co-financed projects, a move toward a less clear communication policy, and a new high-level strategy they say leaves many of their questions unanswered.

Devex spoke with civil society actors present at the bank to find out what they think should top ADB’s agenda.

1. Ensure safeguards, especially for growing private sector and co-financed work

ADB will continue to expand its assistance for private sector development. “A key measure of ADB’s success will be the volume and quality of additional resources it mobilizes on top of its own financing,” the Strategy 2030 draft document reads. But the concern is that these projects ultimately receive less oversight from the bank. Information disclosure to communities is much murkier in these deals, too, civil society members tell Devex.

Joe Athialy, executive director for the Centre for Financial Accountability, pointed to the bank’s $450 million investment in the Mundra Ultra Mega Coal plant in the Indian state of Gujarat, operated by Tata Power and co-financed with the International Finance Corporation and others. The bank’s own compliance review panel later determined a lack of consultation with local communities and a failure to comply with waste and pollution management strategies.

In the meantime, coal dust from conveyor belts feeding the power station threaten local residents’ health and contaminate agriculture, while infrastructure has damaged groundwater systems, Athialy said. The ADB has conducted several studies following these findings, but the plant continues to operate.

“Now they are doing studies on air quality. Does the project stop because of that? No. I think the project should stop until all the studies are done and there is a proper assessment of the impact so remedial actions could be planned,” Athialy said.

Overall, CSOs want the bank to more closely monitor co-financed projects and come down harder on partners who shirk safeguards: “The Private Sector Operations Department does not have enough strength to cover the oversight role for the intermediaries’ projects,” Soentoro said.

Michael Barrow, head of the bank’s Private Sector Operations Department, said during a session with CSOs that he is open to the discussion, but reiterated that his department applies the same safeguard policy as any other in ADB — and that he has also increased his safeguard staff by 13 in the past year as private sector operations continue to grow. 

2. Finalize a stronger communication policy

A new communication policy for the bank is still under review, but CSO members are worried about a move from prescriptive to principle-based regulations. The ADB’s current Public Communications Policy is procedural, Hassan explained, meaning there are procedures of consultations and of information disclosure.

“If there are violations, you can file a complaint,” he said.

The new regulations, named Access to Information, are principle-based, with a principle called “proactive disclosure.” But principles can be interpreted differently by management or individual departments, Hassan noted, which may leave less room for official complaints.

That’s not how the bank is interpreting the changes, according to Amy Leung, director general of ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department.

“It has already been ingrained in us, we are so used to disclosing [information],” Leung told Devex. “And even other ADB policies would have required us to do that anyways. I don’t think it will affect [us] at all.”

But civil society is still concerned that the wording of the new Access to Information leaves too much room for interpretation. “Principles are not enough,” said Soentoro. “You need a set of provisions. For example, is there any provisions that documents will be translated into the language of affected people? No.”

3. Connect the dots between reforms, and issue more detailed operational plans for Strategy 2030

The Strategy 2030 should be viewed in the context of its relationship with the other existing policies, strategies, and operational plans of ADB, Annabel Perreras, program manager for NGO Forum on ADB, told Devex. Right now, it “feels isolated in how they drafted it,” she said.

ADB’s commitment to the sustainable development goals and to the Paris agreement, for example, is acknowledged in the strategy, but “it’s not enough to acknowledge that they recognize global agreements. What we are asking is how they are going to support these kinds of agreements. That piece is still lacking into the Strategy 2030,” Perreras said.

Perreras also noted what she sees as disconnects in the strategy, such as a commitment to the Paris agreement but a lack of commitment to phasing out coal, while Soentoro pointed out the promotion of “eco-sensitivity” despite ongoing financial support for environmentally damaging geothermal projects in Indonesia.

As for providing the more detailed operational aspects of the strategy, “this is a strategy document to show strategic direction. If we talk about how to implement, how to resource … it becomes [an] operational document, which we don’t want,” Tomoyuki Kimura, director general of ADB’s strategy, policy, and review department, told Devex.

The bank will be preparing detailed operational-level documents covering three to five years, he added, and will disclose them publicly when they are complete — something CSOs are clearly anxious to see.

“The question is if you don’t know how you want to do it, how can we believe them?” Soentoro said. “They say the operational plan will be later; we say it’s better right now so we can see if they want to do something, how they want to do it.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.