Wolfensohn discusses human rights, environment at Greenpeace lecture

24 May 2004

Bank president James Wolfensohn spoke in mid-May at a Greenpeace Business event in London. He made interesting points on issues from climate change to human rights and appealed to civil society groups to work with the Bank not against it. He undermined this diplomacy, however, by asserting arrogantly that no Bank project has harmed indigenous peoples while he has been in charge.

Wolfensohn began by reminding the audience that Greenpeace ten years ago executed a major action to embarrass the Bank at its 50th anniversary conference in Madrid. He said the Bank had improved and urged CSOs to turn their attention to key governments which do not care about environment and development.

He also emphasised that his son was making a film on climate change issues, so he did not need to hear from campaign groups about this serious global problem. Along these lines he called the Extractive Industries Review “very difficult to disagree with”. He did, however, then claim that it was not a consensus document and that he had many letters from government ministers and companies arguing against implementation of the report. On the substance of the issues he said, without being specific, that the Bank would be able to provide significant funding for renewables. He also said, however, that unmet energy needs could not be met solely through renewables. And that as coal and oil extraction and combustion are inevitable, the Bank should continue regulating and reducing the impacts.

I have exceeded my authority because we are a financial institution

On human rights he said he was doing what he could to push the debate in his institution, but did not want to bring the issue to the board and lose. He said “if I talk about a rights-based approach, I get letters [from board members] saying I have exceeded my authority because we are a financial institution. Many countries on our board have signed the declaration of human rights but say this is not the job of a financial institution”. He mentioned in passing that “debates at the board are different” from when he arrived at the Bank in 1995, mainly because middle-income countries such as China are now taken much more seriously.

A number of times in the evening it appeared that Wolfensohn was more interested in preaching about general development topics than in discussing the details of what his institution was up to. This was clearly the impression many gained when Wolfensohn made the far-fetched claim that “on my watch there has been no project that has damaged indigenous peoples”. Such claims are absolutely the wrong way for Wolfensohn to encourage Bank-watchers to relax their guard and begin collaborating with him. Forest Peoples’ Programme has responded with a detailed letter pointing out the damage to indigenous groups in one country alone. They produce “substantial evidence to show that indigenous Bakola, Bagyeli and Baka communities in Cameroon have suffered as a direct result of the World Bank’s failure to ensure proper application of its indigenous peoples policy in the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, the Campo Ma’an Environmental Offset Project and the establishment of the Boumba Bek-Nki and Lobeke National Parks”.

Steve Kretzmann, one of the Greenpeace team who organised the action in 1994 and now with the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, commented: “Wolfensohn was lovely on atmospherics, but gave an extended defense of business-as-usual on the specifics. He has got a report he commissioned that agrees with many CSO positions and really we’re only hearing excuses for why they can’t accept them. If they want CSOs to continue to engage the Bank has got to be willing to take on board different perspectives. If not the coming period will be marked by much more protest”.

Wolfensohn himself admitted that despite hiring 120 civil society liaison officers and aiming to get human values recognised alongside economic ones during project planning, there are still problems aligning staff incentives with his high ambitions for the institution. Many believe this is partly because he is constantly travelling to make speeches rather than overseeing the implementation of the vast range of initiatives his institution has signed up to.