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Is The World Bank Environmental And Social Framework “Safeguarding”?

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Since the early years of its inception in the 1940s, The World Bank has primarily used two instruments for financing its development projects; Investment Project Financing and Development Policy Lending. However, no regulation or policy framework was established to address the environmental and societal discriminatory practices arising out of such funding.

The World Bank “Safeguard Policies” came into existence in the 1980s as a regulatory framework to address the shortcomings in these financing norms. The World Bank Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) introduced in 2017 is an ameliorated and upgraded version of the Safeguard Policies and lists down ten simplified standards, known as Environmental and Social Standards (ESS) that borrower nations must abide, whenever borrowing for infrastructural and development projects.

World Bank HQ
The World Bank headquarters in Washington DC.

The framework is currently applicable to all borrower nations and was constructed after several years of draft reviews, recommendations, policy improvements and structural changes. However, numerous critics have raised questions based on its international practices and human rights concern. Are the Environment and Social Framework “safeguarding” in the true sense? Some shreds of evidence prove otherwise.

Human Rights Violations

The World Bank and several other International Organisations (IOs) have at several instances remained silent on allegations related to one particular domain: Human Rights. Though the World Bank has agreed to conform with international laws and agreements relating to climate change, marginal or no references have been made regarding International Human Rights Law in the framework.

The Coalition for Human Rights in Development (CHRD) in 2016 indicated that several recommendations from civil society groups were not included in the ESF, where labour policies were included but were inconsistent in any mention of international standards for the rights of workers. Labour rights are usually referred to from the four core labour standards, as mentioned by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Bank fails to mention them in the ESF.

The diversity in such policy frameworks is usually indicated by the social and environmental inclusion of various aspects. For example, the JP Morgan Chase and Co. Environmental and Social Policy Framework include not only labour policies, but dimensions of Child Labour and Human Trafficking, which is highly appreciable.

The issue of Labour policies particularly gained great criticism where the Bank has directed borrower nations to follow basic workers’ rights and stressed extensively on the aspect of working conditions only. The fact that suggestions from civil societies were not appreciated is highly disturbing. Civil Society Organisations are the most important watchdogs when such policy frameworks are proposed and their recommendations are of great value.

Indigenous African
The Forest Peoples Programme indicate that indigenous groups usually have negative benefit from the overuse and commercialisation of their natural resources under World Bank projects.

Indigenous communities, LGBTI groups have been adversely affected due to human rights violations. The term “Indigenous Peoples/Sub-Saharan African Historically Underserved Traditional Local Communities” as mentioned in the ESF Standards is highly confusing in the sense that several governments do not acknowledge the term “indigenous people” due to differences in nomenclature and the Bank does not acknowledge the fact either.

The framework should comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as no international agreement mentions any special emphasis to the Sub-Saharan local community, which is highly discriminatory in terms of several indigenous groups who remain unrecognised to this day.

The Forest Peoples Programme indicate that indigenous groups usually have negative benefit from the overuse and commercialisation of their natural resources under World Bank projects. Loss of livelihood, forced migration and the psychological cost of land resettlement are the most common repercussions created from large-scale projects.

Gender Discriminations

The Gender Justice Women’s Rights, in a report, uses specific quantitative and qualitative analysis to indicate that the first review draft of the ESF has no or a very low-frequent mention of terms relating to gender standard indicating possible gender discrimination. Terms such as gender, boy, girl have low frequency, whereas terms like sexual orientation are not mentioned at all.

The study indicates that in a 110-page consultation draft, the word gender is mentioned 19 times only, with women and men even less. The latest document on the ESF, 2018, has a reduced frequency of 11 when the term gender is mentioned.

The ESS mentioning the labour working conditions attracts more criticism given the absence of gender dimensions. The standard fails to encourage women empowerment and promotion, especially given the fact that women’s labour force participation has stagnated in the last few decades.

There are several critical points to introspect given the discriminatory attitude of the Bank in gender policy discussions; the distinctive health and medical problems faced by men and women, the percentage of land held by the world’s women population (roughly 1%), women being globally paid less compared to men, having unaccounted economic activities and their increasing importance in biodiversity and ecosystem protection are not mentioned in the entire framework structure.

Structural And Political Issues

The establishment of the framework, coincidently arrived at a juncture when major shareholders to the World Bank agreed on an increased amount available for financing. This phenomenon is known as a General Capital Increase.

However, such policies tend to strengthen the Bank’s intention to provide comparatively “risker lending” into “high-risk projects” in “politically-fragile” economies. The financing structure of these projects also uses the term “risk-based management” very frequently, which means that environmental and social challenges will be addressed when they appear in the course of the program rather than a prior assessment.

There are also several structural deficiencies indicated in the framework. Its restrictions to Investment Project Financing only, and not to other lending heads such as the Development Policy Lending (DPL) has been a subject of controversy.

DPL in some years includes around 40% of total funds lent out. Though countries require mandatory submission of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), several organisations such as the Bretton Woods Project have criticised the procedure indicating inefficient environmental and social assessment. The structure of the framework is based on “environmental” discrimination but does not make any references from The Paris Agreement.

Can We Take Up Against The Bank?

Several projects, such as dam construction, landscape-management, forest rejuvenation, river-basin cleaning, etc. have led to adverse environmental and social impacts on communities living in the vicinity of such projects, and are dependent on local resources for livelihood.

Such impacts instigate protests. However, at several instances activists have been threatened, with personal-risk when they campaign for under-served minorities and particularly vulnerable groups. One such example can be of campaigns against the Indonesia Geothermal Project. Environment promoters and climate activists have been often termed as “terrorists” and criticised to serve “foreign-interests”, whereas they fight for the public good based on international human rights.

The debate relating to any such criticism based on instruments of International Organisations revolves solely around the courage and fearlessness of the stakeholders who take up against such large Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). The fact that there is minor support is deeply worrisome, as externalities from projects may impact any group in any country.

The construction and operation of the 4,150MW Tata Mundra coal power plant along the Gujarat coast is harming livelihoods and destroying the natural resources that generations of local families have relied on for fishing, farming, salt-panning, and animal rearing.

The case of Tata Mundra Vs International Finances Corporation in Gujarat is very famous in this regard, where funding for a coal-plant led to respiratory illnesses in the locality. The Bank remains immune in this regard (latest verdict in February 2020).

While several economists have hailed praises for The World Bank ESF, there remains scope for improvement at several fronts. Some indicate the previous Safeguard Policies to be comparatively inclusive, considering the discriminatory angle in several ESS. Though protests and campaigns continue, there remains uncertainty regarding any change in the fundamentals of the framework and accountability in the financing aspect.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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