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World Bank in spotlight

As the World Bank considers supplying fresh loans to Cambodia, a new study uses the country as exhibit A for how the financier effectively sponsors corporate land grabs at the expense of the rural poor it purportedly helps.

Three years ago, the bank’s own inspectors found it complicit in one of the largest forced evictions in Cambodia: More than 20,000 people were ousted from their homes at Boeung Kak lake after a bank-supported program denied the families land titles.

Consequently, a private developer headed by a ruling party senator was granted a 99-year lease of the area. The subsequent, ongoing dispossession of the Boeung Kak families, the report by environmental think tank the Oakland Institute claims, indicates how the bank’s policies destroy livelihoods rather than alleviate poverty.

“The World Bank follows the very basic idea that private investment will result in economic growth which will bring development, while ignoring what is happening on the ground for hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and millions of people around the world,” said Anuradha Mittal, policy director at the Oakland Institute.

Through global rankings like its annual Doing Business Report, the bank rewards countries with the lowest social and environmental standards imposed on businesses

“The Bank’s financial power and political leverage has made it difficult for cash-poor countries to oppose the institution,” the report says.

In Cambodia, a wave of deregulation reforms starting in 2003 produced the desired increase in foreign investors, but the boom also incurred an uptick in land disputes. Since 2000, over half a million Cambodians have been subjected to forced eviction.

“By actively promoting and encouraging countries to attract investors at all costs, [the bank] facilitates land grabbing and increases pressure on resources,” says the report.

Commercialisation is beneficial to the extent that some of it does trickle down, said Ear Sophal, a former World Bank consultant and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

“[B]ut are there better ways to develop than trickle-down economics? I think we’ve discovered that growth alone cannot be sufficient. Distribution matters too,” he said.

Seeking to limit evictions and improve land tenure security, the bank has promoted several titling programs in Cambodia, including the Land Management and Administration Project, which facilitated the Boeung Kak community’s eviction.

“The bank says their intention is to strengthen land ownership for poor and vulnerable people, but instead, we’re seeing the opposite happen, with people becoming more marginalised after they are arbitrarily excluded from titling,” said Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia. “The bank … has to use its policies and influence to insure its investments are being responsibly managed.”

After alleging it would not reinvest in Cambodia until the Boeung Kak dispute was resolved, the bank announced in August it is considering supplying $25 million for a new leg of its land-titling program.

At the annual bank meeting in Washington, DC, this week, human rights groups delivered a petition against further investment in Cambodia.

Forcible evictions, lack of due process and compensation have “become an even more significant problem” in Cambodia, the petition says. “It makes no sense for the World Bank to reverse its loan ban at this time.”

Neither the World Bank, nor the International Finance Committee responded to repeated requests for comment.

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