Sustainability dismantled

28 June 2006

At the same time as the Bank trumpets its role as a leading champion of the world’s climate change problems (see Update 51), a leaked e-mail from president Wolfowitz to Bank staff has confirmed fears of his intention to disband the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (ESSD) and merge it with the Bank’s infrastructure department, thereby creating a new department, called “Sustainable Development”. The new department will be headed by the current head of the infrastructure department, Kathy Sierra.

Despite Wolfowitz’s claim to be acting in the interests of stronger “cooperation, coordination and integration” and streamlining management, his move has created uproar amongst civil society and Bank staff. In order to “preserve the independence and high quality work necessary for our development projects” Wolfowitz says he will create a new position to be filled by a “world class environmental expert” and move the current ESSD environmental and social safeguards team to the Operations Policy and Country Services VPU. However, surrendering the structural independence of a department dealing with the environmental and social dimensions of development- including indigenous peoples, resettlement, biodiversity- and merging it with a body working on infrastructure such as roads, ports, hydro-electric dams and oil pipelines is hardly an indication that the Bank is serious about protecting ecosystems and livelihoods.

ESSD was established following some of the sharpest conflicts between the Bank and civil society organizations resulting from the subordination of environmental and social dimensions of development lending, as illustrated by such contentious projects as the Sardar Sarovar dam project in India, the Chixoy dam in Guatemala and the Bulyanhulu gold mine in Tanzania.

his move to disband ESSD has created uproar amongst civil society and Bank staff

Despite its limitations, ESSD is the only tool there is for pushing the sustainability agenda within the Bank. Dismantling visible organisational leadership on the issue begs the question as to who will now take charge of Bank attempts to work on global environmental issues. Geoff Nettleton of UK NGO Indigenous Peoples Links stated “The proposed changes signal further subordination of social and environmental expertise and independence within the Bank, and undermine existing high-level channels for direct engagements with indigenous peoples and civil society organisations”.

In a meeting with UK NGOs on Monday 26 June, the UK’s executive director to the World Bank, Tom Scholar said that preserving ESSD was “essential”, given the role it plays in protecting environmental and social interests, and stated that he had expressed concern to management about the rumoured axing of the department.

A town hall meeting for Bank staff is to be held on Wednesday 28 June in Washington D.C at 11.30 am to discuss “ideas and questions about implementation”.