THE recent Earth Summit in Brazil illustrated as never before the split between North and South, between the richer industrialized countries and those still struggling to develop their full economic potential.
Second only to the United States as a symbol of inequality and just about everything else that's wrong with the world (at least in the eyes of many critics from poorer countries) were the international financial institutions distributing aid for development projects. It's not that such countries don't want the aid, but that too often the projects aren't necessarily in the best interests of those they are meant to help.
The most extreme view was expressed by the head of the "Third World Network," Martin Khor of Malaysia, who called the World Bank "one of the greatest promoters of poverty and environmental destruction in the world."
Andrew Steer, who directs the World Bank's annual development report, acknowledged in meeting with Mr. Khor and other nongovernment representatives that the bank "should listen more closely to the people."
That point was made most graphically last week with the release of a special World Bank-commissioned report on one of its most controversial undertakings, the Narmada Valley Project in India. After 10 months of study, this independent review identified "serious deficiencies in the measures taken to safeguard the human rights of thousands of people and to ameliorate the environmental impacts of the world's largest hydroelectric and irrigation complexes."
"It seems clear that engineering and economic imperatives have driven the projects to the exclusion of human and environmental concerns," says the report, whose lead author was Bradford Morse, a former US congressman who once headed the United Nations Development Program.
The project, which has been in the works for three decades, includes 30 large dams, 135 medium-sized dams, and another 3,000 smaller dams along the Narmada River. The largest of these is the Sardar Sarovar project, which will create one of the world's largest artificial lakes by flooding 33,947 acres.
The project is supposed to bring irrigation and drinking water to millions of Indians. But in the process some 248 villages and towns will be submerged beginning next month with the summer monsoons. The Indian government estimates that 90,000 people will have to be relocated, but other groups say the whole project could displace as many as 300,000 people.
As the project proceeded, many villagers organized in protest. According to the human-rights group Asia Watch, at least 1,000 protesters have been detained and many have been mistreated by government authorities. "Violations of free expression and association," according to an Asia Watch paper, "appear to be part of a systematic campaign on the part of the [Indian] state governments involved to intimidate those opposed to the Sardar Sarovar Project. They also point to a serious disregard for the principl e of `good governance' identified by the World Bank as essential to genuine development."
The World Bank's own investigative commission found that involuntary resettlement at Sardar Sarovar "offends recognized norms of human rights," and it states flatly that "the history of the environmental aspects of Sardar Sarovar is a history of non-compliance." The report warns of flooding caused by sedimentation above the dam and says "the incidence of malaria has risen sharply in villages near the dam."
Former World Bank president Barber Conable is to be lauded for launching the investigation last year. And his successor, Lewis Preston, likewise deserves credit for promising "a comprehensive and vigorous response."
In his speech at the Earth Summit, Mr. Preston said, "The bank's effectiveness in combating poverty while protecting the environment is the benchmark against which our performance as a development institution should be judged."
It seems obvious that the record of the Narmada Valley Project in India is not the desired benchmark. It should be seen as the starting point for a new era at the World Bank in which human rights and truly sustainable development are placed above "engineering and economic imperatives."