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ADB Slams Cambodia Railway's Resettlement Plan

  • Robert Carmichael

A woman cooks rice by a railway track in Phnom Penh, March 19, 2013.

A woman cooks rice by a railway track in Phnom Penh, March 19, 2013.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Friday released a damning internal review of the much-criticized resettlement program that's related to the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s railway network

The 180-page report by the ADB’s internal review body found that years of wholesale failure by ADB staff when planning and implementing the resettlement program had caused “direct, adverse and material harm” to thousands of people.

The report says the ADB’s staff must “undergo a mind shift” in their approach to future resettlement projects, and they call on the bank to provide compensation for the damage done.

In recent years, an estimated 4,000 Cambodian families, most of whom are very poor, were forcibly moved to make way for the railway upgrade. Under the bank’s own rules, none of them should have ended up worse off.

But Friday’s report makes clear that the ADB’s failure to comply with its own rules on resettlement means that many, and perhaps most, are in fact worse off.

“It’s the most damning report in the history of [the] ADB’s accountability mechanism," said David Pred, who heads a nonprofit called Inclusive Development International, and has advocated for those affected by the railway project. "It’s findings are really scathing, and what it calls for isn’t just bringing this project back into compliance - well it was never in compliance in the first place - but a mind shift is what they call for at ADB in the way they treat people affected by their projects, and the way they approach social and environmental safeguards.”

The railway rehabilitation program was agreed upon between the ADB and the Cambodian government in 2006. After years of civil war, the railway was rundown and in poor shape. The country, by then at peace, wanted to restore it. The $142 million project funded the repair and replacement of hundreds of kilometers of track across the country.

But from the start, the ADB report states, the entire resettlement element was deeply flawed. Although the Cambodian government was in charge of resettlement, the ADB’s job was to ensure that process was done properly. The bank admits it failed to do so.

Among the long list of errors contained in the report is the assertion that many households received far less than their existing homes were worth, causing them to fall deeply indebt.

Also, payments were not linked to inflation which meant people who were moved in 2010, for example, received compensation at 2006 prices.

The report also criticizes the lack of services at resettlement sites, a situation that rights groups say led directly to the deaths of three children from resettled families.

In emailed comments Friday, the ADB said that it would consult with the various parties involved over the next two months, including the affected families and the government, before working out a plan of action.

Pred says the report should be the start and not the end of the process. He wants ADB staff held accountable for failings that have damaged thousands of Cambodia’s poorest people.

“I mean it’s frankly an outrage that so many lives have been destroyed by this project," Pred said. "Lives have been lost. There are three children who died because of ADB’s gross negligence and, as far as we can tell, not a single staff member of ADB has paid a price for that.”

Asked whether the bank would sanction any of its employees or contractors in light of the report’s findings, ADB country director Eric Sidgwick told VOA that he would not comment publicly on staffing issues.

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