When an aid project goes wrong, who is responsible?

24 April 2014

When we talk about “open government”, it’s common to also hear talk of transparency and accountability alongside. At its simplest, a government being transparent and open about their actions is a necessary step for citizens to know what is happening in their country, and to understand what decisions are being made on their behalf. Having access to this information is also a necessary step for citizens to be able to hold government accountable for their actions, and citizens being able to take action through legal and official means when they feel a government has taken irresponsible actions is a crucial step in this chain.

So- what about in “open aid” or “open development”? One major focus of transparency in aid has been ensuring that aid projects are carried out in the most effective and efficient way; without wasting money, either through inefficient service delivery or corruption, or other means. Here, the chain of accountability that is addressed goes directly from the donor agency (eg. the UK’s Department for International Development, DFID) to their citizens (ie. UK citizens). In the case of large multilateral donors, the accountability mechanisms are perhaps more complicated, but still present.

This move towards transparency and accountablity within international development is, of course, a great development; but what about accountability to the people who are affected by aid projects? Those whose lives are completely changed by aid projects, and those who are most at need; if their lives are negatively affected by (whether intentionally or unintentionally) aid projects, where do they turn?

Case studies

Earlier this week, a story was written by AFP with the headline “Ethiopian sues Britain over aid funding ‘rights abuse’”. It turns out, though, that this story is not a new one; the man in question, known as Mr O, started legal action against the UK’s donor agency, the Department for International Development (DFID) back in September 2012. A lot more detail on the story was covered in this Guardian story from December 2012, and this story from January 2013 which also named the particular project that is under fire - the “Protection of Basic Services” programme. The outcome of this case is, as yet, unclear, but the precedents that have been set make for some interesting, if not desparing, reading.

One such case resulted from mass arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh as a result of a project from UNICEF together with Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health and Engineering, which began in the 1980s. The multi-million dollar project involved sinking more than a million tube wells across the country to reduce fatalities caused by drinking dirty surface water; however, the newly sourced water turned out to be contaminated with arsenic. This oversight has resulted in what the World Health Organisation has described as “the largest poisoning of a population in history”, with an estimated 35 million - 77 million people were living in areas known to have some contaminated wells, with a further study carried out in 2010 discovered that 20% of deaths in a 10-year study of 12,000 Bangladeshis were caused by arsenic exposure from contaminated drinking water.

In 1992, a subsidiary of the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the British Geological Survey (BGS), carried out a water evaluation, but they did not specifically test for arsenic; as a result, people carried on drinking the water following this survey.

In 2004, Binod Sutradhar, a Bangladeshi man suffering from arsenic poisoning took NERC to court, alleging that BGS had a duty of care to test for arsenic in 1992, and saying that if the poison had been identified then, they would have stopped drinking the water and suffered to a lesser degree, if at all. The case was rejected however, and the geologists cleared of any misconduct, with the judge saying that the agencies “can be liable only for the things they did and the statements they made, not for what they did not do”.

Which begs the question: if NERC/ the BGS aren’t responsible, nor UNICEF or the Bangladeshi government; who is? The long term effects of arsenic poisoning are killing an estimated 270,000 people per year, with millions of others suffering from serious side effects. Millions of people who were already living in some of the worst conditions in the world are now suffering as a result of the (admittedly well-intentioned) project, with zero recourse for justice.

One last example can be seen in Haiti, where 5,000 Haitians affected by cholera are suing the UN for reparations and clean water infrastructure. Nearly 8,500 Haitians have died from cholera since the disease broke out in October 2010, and the lawsuit alleges that the disease was introduced to Haiti by UN peacekeeping forces from Nepal. The lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. Federal Court.

This interview with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) who is representing the cholera victims in Haiti, insinuates strongly that the UN is shirking its responsiblity towards the Haitians. In early March 2014, a UN-appointed expert on human rights in Haiti, Gustavo Gallon, called for full compensation for the Haiti victims; but despite this, the UN is claiming immunity from such claims under its Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN. This convention, written in 1946, includes

The United Nations, its property and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process

as well as “immunity from legal process of every kind” for Experts on Missions for the United Nations.

With immunity stated so clearly here, the chain of accountability going from those affected by aid projects to those instigating the projects seems to be utterly broken - at least, judging from past projects.

At a time when multiple initiatives within the global development community (including from UN agencies) are focusing on listening to marginalised communities, listening to previously unheard communities, and more generally, making international development more inclusive; this total lack of accountability to vulnerable communities at the most basic level seems like a huge and critical oversight.


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