Going for a more country safeguards system in Asia-Pacific

A community committee holds a meeting on Asian Development Bank's Karnataka urban development and coastal environmental management project. The ADB, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the World Bank signed a partnership agreement last week aimed at strengthening the country safeguards system in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

The Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the World Bank are partnering to boost safeguard systems in the Asia-Pacific, ensuring that development projects meet international standards for environmental and social protection.

The three organizations will “help improve member countries’ safeguards systems and better manage the environmental and social risks associating with major developments,” Mark Kunzer, principal environment specialist of the ADB told Devex.

“What's new is that we’ve realized over time that there's a lot of synergies to be had and we work better together,” he said. “The purpose of what we're doing is helping countries get to a point where they can begin to use their own systems for the funding that comes from the development partners.”

The partnership agreement — called “Principles of Collaboration for Country Safeguard Systems” — was signed last week during the International Association for Impact Assessment Conference in Nagoya, Japan.

While the three institutions have worked together in the past on development projects in discussions with national governments the new partnership will provide an official framework for collaboration and knowledge sharing, Kunzer said.

Empowering countries

Formulating and implementing safeguards systems has long been a sticky issue for multilateral institutions. Controversy has hounded both the ADB’s and the World Bank’s systems in recent years.

One of the biggest issues in terms of safeguards implementation, especially on joint projects, has been the dilemma on whose safeguard systems to use — and the responsibility when things fail. Over the last two decades, numerous multilateral institutions have streamlined their safeguards systems.

“All the various international finance institutions have been altering and improving their own safeguard systems to become more aligned and similar to each other. Nowadays, it's very little difference,” he said.

The  ADB has been pushing for the strengthening of individual country safeguards system along similar lines since 2009. Already, Asia-Pacific nations have shown programs in passing laws and regulations relating to safeguards. Kunzer said most countries in the region have processes in place particularly on environmental impact assessments — with the exception of North Korea. Processes regarding involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples, however, remain deficient in many contexts, he said.

The new partnership will aim to bring the safeguards fully up to standard. “It's ensuring that the countries own systems continue to develop to face the new challenges in Asia and that they are effective,” Kunzer said.

Cooperation between the three institutions will also prevent overlap and help save countries from having to undertake multiple impact assessments, he said. The agreement will also allow the partners to pool their money and other resources together and be cost-efficient in their operations.

Imperfect

Despite improvements, some still question the comprehensive efficacy of these safeguards systems.

The ADB is no stranger to these safeguard concerns and issues in its development programs in the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, in its controversial Cambodia railway project or a dam project in Laos. The World Bank has also faced scrutiny over allegedly lowering its own standards through its ongoing safeguards reform, Bankwatch regional coordinator for the Caucusus Manana Kochladze told Devex.

Kunzer, however, maintained that most problems arise from implementation, not the policies themselves. Although he also admitted that while the bank’s safeguards are of high quality, they’re also not perfect in every sense. “We’re not perfect so there are going to be times that problems occur.”

Civil society organizations that have been at the forefront fighting these safeguards issues share the sentiment. “There is a lack of proper implementation of the ADB standards. The policy itself currently is one of the best, if not the best,” Knud Vöcking, multilateral development bank expert at Berlin-based advocacy group Urgewald, told Devex. “There are missing elements that should be addressed like the core labor standards.”

The Urgewald official concluded that a “complete overhaul of the standards is not necessary” as was seen with the experience with the World Bank safeguards reform which he believes was used “to weaken and dilute the standards instead of complementing and strengthening them.”

Given that the common expectation for development programs is to improve the lives of the people and the environment they live in, any lapse or mistake leads to scrutiny of these safeguards. Ensuring that all stakeholders — from international down to local — uphold the same high standards for these policies, as seen in the goals of this partnership, are crucial.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.