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Yes, let’s stick to the facts on the Nam Theun 2 Dam

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The World Bank claims its priorities are with the people for the Nam Theun 2 Dam project, but clearly economics are in the forefront. Their development policies are encouraging bad governance and ignoring the rights of the people, particularly minority groups.

Re: Letter to the editor “Let’s stick to the facts on the Nam Theun 2 Dam”

In their 19 December 2007 letter to The Nation, the World Bank’s Communication Advisor Peter Stephens stated the “facts” about the Nam Theun 2 Dam, currently under construction, in Lao PDR. His facts suggested a huge economic boost for this underdeveloped nation and improved services for people who are relocated for dam construction. The World Bank claims that it is involved in the project for the benefit of the people: “ultimately it is the people’s lives we are seeking to improve”. But there are facts missing from this World Bank letter, crucial facts about the reality of poverty alleviation in Lao PDR.

The mandate of the World Bank is economic development. Their practices over the decades have proven that its priority is economic benefit for elite segments of society. If the Nam Theun 2 Dam goes as planned it will generate an estimated USD 2 billion for the Lao government over the next 25 years. Without an explicit focus on benefits for affected people, “trickle down” economics do not work, especially in impoverished nations such as Lao PDR.

The economic benefits of the Nam Theun 2 Dam will flow through the government of Laos, which is one of the last remaining Cold War style communist states where public opposition is forbidden. Non-democratic states do not represent nor respond to the desires of the people. Recently, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Lao PDR representative openly supported the government of Burma, who violently suppressed monks who were peacefully demonstrating, basically stating that critics of Burma should mind their own business. It is through this government that the World Bank plans to ultimately improve the lives of the people.

The Lao PDR government is responsible for improving the lives of its people. According to the World Bank, the over 6,000 people who have been relocated to make way for the dam now enjoy such things as clean water, toilets and schools, as a result of this World Bank project. The other thousands of people indirectly affected must fend for themselves. The government of the Lao PDR has failed to provide these basic rights to their citizens. The Panel of Experts that the that World Bank has commissioned to advise the project have not taken into account the ethnic differences of the people affected and the fact that development affects minorities differently and often serves to disadvantage them further.

The Lao government’s poverty reduction projects so far have involved forcefully relocating and amalgamating villages as a fast fix to provide services such as clean water and basic health. Villagers are forced to engage in a new type of agriculture that they are unfamiliar with and receive minimal or no assistance to learn new techniques. Different communities are forced to fight for limited resources, causing ethnic tensions and conflict that previously did not exist. The stress of village relocation has increased mortality rates to up to 70%. Resettlement programmes have been criticised for forcing assimilation on these indigenous and ethnic minority communities. This is Lao PDR poverty reduction, now further assisted by the World Bank in an apparent effort to ultimately improve people’s lives.

The World Bank needs to stick to the real facts about its policy support in the Lao PDR. The basic fact is that hydro electric power is in huge demand, and Lao PDR has rivers to be utilised. The affects on people’s lives are a side concern, not a priority. A human rights based approach to development must be at the forefront of development initiatives, particularly the “free, prior and informed consent” of affected communities. Ordering people to relocate without fair compensation or the ability to decide the fate of their communities will not improve the lives of the Lao people.