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Making Development Anthropology More Public: A Study of Displacement and Resettlement by the World Bank

Development anthropologists embody a niche existence that is not always easy to navigate. There are naysayers and antagonists to the discipline on all sides of the political field; the hegemonic scientific and economic communities overwhelmingly discount the value of social science and the knowledge it generates; and policymakers often do not prioritize development issues. Development anthropologists have not only had to learn and adopt much of the language, presumptions, and social constructs of its audiences and interlocutors, but have also had to make problematic compromises working with a broken system in order to make small advancements in society. In other words, challenging the prevailing paradigm of development work is an “up-hill battle.” This struggle to impart positive social change from the unique perspective of and position as a development anthropologist is heightened by the fact that institutions and people with socio-economic power (in academia, within development agencies, Governments, etc.) disagree about what actions and policies are ethical, would enable human progress, and are practical. In addition, those with socio-economic power advance their own ideologies of what these three conditions entail and mean, so that they continue to profit economically, or to maintain a position of dominance.

But, what are these elusive institutions and who are these people with socio-economic power? In 1972, anthropologist, Laura Nader, popularized the term “studying up,” which pushed the discipline to reinvent itself. No longer ought the subject(s) of anthropological inquiry and study be the exotic, the paternalistically called “primitives,” and the powerless; instead, anthropologists were to study the familiar and the powerful. Institutions, people, and structuresof power became the subject(s) of a newly developing form of cultural anthropology: applied, or public, anthropology. This sub-discipline rejects anthropology’s apolitical history and futile attempt at objectivity, for a militantly political praxis. The point of anthropological work is no longer merely to study culture and human development, but to change it…for the sake of equity, human rights, and informed human progress. Ethnography, as an empirical science, is therefore used to investigate nodes and structures of power and what can be done to improve equity between individuals in terms of livelihood standards (e.g., health, access to healthcare, food security, housing, income, etc.).

Development anthropology can be a taboo subject, because outsiders to the discipline are not aware of this turn in the discipline’s history and its newfound objective and purpose. Even some anthropologists are weary of development anthropology, because they do not understand and trust its strategies and tactics. They accuse its affiliates of “selling out,” if you will, of engaging with a broken system that continues to serve those already with socio-economic power and of reestablishing the exploitative anthropological practices of the not-so-distant past. Theoretically, the existing literature on development-caused forced displacement and resettlement(DFDR), for example, has extensively posited the question, “Development for Whom?” (see Mahapatra 1991), which reevaluates who actually profits, and who disproportionally suffers, from development projects; however, in practice, development scholars have only their intellectual weapons with which they can arm themselves to convince those with socio-economic power to relinquish it for the sake of equity and human rights.

Development scholars have indeed had to make complex choices, with dire implications, for the limited societal advancements that they have achieved. This is because despite the “lessons learned” and advocated by development scholars, which emphasize risk assessment and prevention (see Cernea 1997), many development projects cause the involuntary displacement and resettlement of indigenous people. Development projects furthermore cause “new poverty,” primarily by externalizing the costs of DFDR on those uprooted (see Chen 2018). For example, development practitioners widely assert that restoring people to pre-displacement livelihood levels via compensation is a sufficient goal. However, if a development project in question had not existed, the displaced and resettled population would have developed itself to a level much significantly higher on its own during the 8-9 years of average project preparation and implementation.

Incidentally, at the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Annual Meetings, which took place in Washington, DC between November 28-December 3, 2017, World Bank President and physician-anthropologist, Jim Yong Kim, reiterated to a crowd of roughly 7,000 anthropologists, social specialists, students, etc. that the mission of the World Bank’s development agenda is poverty reduction. This mission statement is not only contradictory in that the World Bank directly causes poverty in displacing and resettling indigenous people for its projects, but also because the World Bank does not even assess and ascertain its projects’ outcomes. This means that the World Bank is appropriating the benefits of a mission statement that it entirely fails to prove that it adheres to, let alone even marginally reaches. This mission statement — or ideological model — justifying displacement and resettlement also sets an international precedent for the activities of other development agencies (ADB – the Asian Development Bank, IaDB – the Inter-American Development Bank, etc.) to follow.

Presumably, the justification for displacement and resettlement is that the impacted communities (on which the World Bank largely externalizes the costs of development) are to reap certain benefits in the long-term; however, in the meantime, the World Bank’s activities undoubtedly serve in the interest of U.S. capitalist enterprises. In this, the World Bank is a principal actor in and enabler of neo-colonialism, which is deeply laden with racist, sexist, hetero-normative, capitalist, albeist, etc. ideologies and systems; these also enhance the dominance of the already powerful. In this way, the World Bank’s practices are inherently at odds with its proclaimed goal of poverty reduction in addition to the achievement of equity and the security of human rights. The World Bank’s mission statement should be called criminal, because it misleads the general public into believing that the World Bank is altruistically producing positive social change when logistically its practices only benefit those already with socio-economic power.

The World Bank’s mission statement is also highly offensive, because it is acutely paternalistic in that it is demeaning to, and dehumanizes, the displaced and resettled people otherwise helpless against a major institution backed by the underhandedly domineering U.S. Government. The power dynamics between “developed” and “developing” countries are markedly unequal in that the latter are forced to adapt to the former’s conception(s) of what development entails and means along the ideals and incentives of “developed” countries. In this, institutions and people with socio-economic power are recklessly imposing their own worldviews and even extracting natural resources (e.g., mining) from many already politically vulnerable countries. For example, it is widely documented that “developing” countries tend to lack adequate legal normative frameworks for hosting development projects, and that the World Bank is often negligent in their accountability procedures for project implementation. The World Bank does contain a supposedly impartial entity called the Inspection Panel (IP), which oversees project complaints; however, the process of resolving these complaints has proven arduous, to the detriment of displaced people whose livelihoods are not being reconstructed adequately post-displacement.

For example, data from initially only internally published World Bank reports detail that in a significant amount of cases, World Bank staff “Don’t Know” the outcomes and impacts of development projects on millions of involuntary displaced and resettled people (World Bank 2012 and 2014). Two World Bank Reviews, Involuntary Resettlement Portfolio Review: Phase I: Inventory of Bank- financed Projects Triggering the Involuntary Resettlement Policy (1990– 2010) (2012) and Involuntary Resettlement Portfolio Review: Phase II: Resettlement Implementation (2014), and the World Bank’s Uganda Transport Sector Development Project (TSDP)case failure reflect this “systemic” issue within the World Bank as an institution. In fact, World Bank leadership are not ensuring that its Project Managers, and the like, are documenting outcomes of, and even successful initiatives for, resettlement and livelihood reconstruction.

One would think that an entity as monolithic as the World Bank would maintain and update with operational knowledge its policies for these environmental and social issues. However, the World Bank is actually in the process of downgrading and dismantling them. In February 1980, the World Bank adopted its first social policy on DFDR titled, “Social Issues in World Bank Financed Projects with Involuntary Resettlement” (code numbered ‘Operational Manual Statement – OMS 2.33’).” This social policy was created after the devastation of the World Bank-financed Sobradinho Dam project in late 1970s Brazil. This policy led to the development of other environmental and social “Safeguard Policies.” These policies were a major achievement, because they not only reinforced environmental and social issues inside the Bank, but also geographically expanded them to be acknowledged and treated in more development projects by other agencies, which also adopted the policies.

The World Bank’s then new Safeguard Policies supported and increased borrower countries’ capacity to be more self-determinate in hosting development projects in two ways: by encouraging the World Bank to hire social specialists who could provide guidance in the form of detailed operational procedure documents to borrower countries; and by encouraging Governments to hire local social specialists to get involved in the resettlement phase of development projects. Ethnography, the primary tool of social science, is therefore essential to document and disseminate the namely negative impacts of DFDR. In this, the communities impacted by development projects and anthropologists, and other social specialists, need to collaborate in researching and documenting socio-economic facts, so that the World Bank and its borrower countries can produce operational procedures for successful project implementation. These operational procedures should be specific to the region of and to the project, and be informed by social science (or provide the analysis of many qualitative variables in conjunction) and specialized economic knowledge (about project sustainability).

However, the resettlement and livelihood reconstruction phase of DFDR projects has historically not been treated with the same attention, financial resources, and social science and specialized economic knowledge provided for the displacement portion of such projects. This is another “systemic” issue within the World Bank as an institution. When the resettlement part of a development project is treated at least on par with the displacement part, however, impoverishment risks and further project failures can be averted. In 1997, Cernea published a study about the “Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction (IRR) Model,” which outlines eight key risks and impoverishment processes in DFDR: landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, loss of access to common property resources, increased morbidity, and community disarticulation (Cernea 1997, 1569).

The IRR Model advocates that livelihood reconstruction play a more central role in and be the guiding principle of DFDR project preparation. In this, livelihoods ought not merely be restored following development projects, but actually improved. The Safeguard Policies ensured that the World Bank and its borrower countries were mindful of these risks, and incorporated them in the economic feasibility analyses of development projects beforethey were “green-lighted” to begin in the form of Resettlement Action Plans (RAPs). This prevented impoverishment and other legacy problems in borrower countries post-DFDR. The assessment of development project risks tailored to specific regions, communities, and projects would better protect the people who are typically already socio-economically marginalized, and further impacted by development projects. This anthropological action research on the impacts of DFDR and its solutions needs to be participatoryin that it should engage and work with the communities affected by development projects.

In April 2016, however, the World Bank “replaced” its Safeguard Policies with two new World Bank documents: the Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) and the Environmental and Social Standards (ESS). The new environmental and social “standards” are “binding” for the World Bank’s borrower countries, but non-binding for World Bank staff (World Bank 2017a). The World Bank has furthermore issued draft Guidance Notes for borrower countries to assist them in interpreting the ESF and ESS. For example, the ESS5 on “Land Acquisition, Restrictions on Land Use, and Involuntary Resettlement” explains that one objective of the World Bank is not only to “restore” livelihoods, but also to “improve” them (World Bank 2017b). Theoretically, this so-called objective is positive; however, the wording of the Guidance Note is overly broad and simplified to the point that borrower countries have no actual “guidance” on how to restore, let alone improve, resettled peoples’ livelihoods after a development project has unfolded.

Many people still believe that what now exists (the standards) constitutes a modified wording and content of the original Safeguard Policies. In fact, it is indisputable that the status of those Safeguard Policies has changed. These environmental and social “standards,” are not respected by the World Bank and borrower countries the same as financial issues and policies. If World Bank staff (and, implicitly, the Bank itself) are not obliged by policy to follow and enforce these standards, then why should the borrower countries do so on their own end? There is no accountability mechanism in the Bank ensuring that its staff and the borrower countries are following and enforcing these standards, since they are non-binding for Bank staff. Therefore, the World Bank is outsourcing responsibility of development project outcomes to borrower countries, which do not necessarily possess legal normative frameworks capable of ensuring the successful implementation of development projects.

To combat this, participatory research is necessary; it creates a greater collective identity among displaced and resettled populations and further empowers them to organize towards buying-out projects. As the imposing entity, however, the World Bank needs to maintain a firm policy that places more accountability on itself and its staff. The World Bank must also support borrower countries with socio-economic data (especially for the resettlement phase of development projects and livelihood reconstruction) in addition to helping foster and define legal normative frameworks. Even this can be an overly top-down approach that reinforces paternalistic power dynamics between “developed” and “developing” countries. Therefore, rather than asserting a desultory goal of poverty reduction, development work should seek to empower political organizing and grassroots coalition building from the bottom-up.


Cernea, Michael M. 1997. “The Risks and Reconstruction Model for Resettling Displaced Populations.” World Development, 25(10). World Bank, Washington, DC. pp. 1569-1587.

Cernea, Michael M. and Hari Mohan Mathur (eds.). 2007. Can Compensation Prevent Impoverishment? Reforming Resettlement through Investments and Benefit-Sharing. Oxford University Press.

Chen, Shaojun. 2018. Challenging the Prevailing Paradigm of Displacement and Resettlement: Risks, Impoverishment, Legacies, Solutions. In process.

Mahapatra, L. K. 1991. “Development for Whom? Depriving the Dispossessed Tribals,” Social Action, 41(3), pp. 271-287.

Nader, Laura. 1972. “Up the anthropology: perspectives gained from studying up.” Reinventing Anthropology. Pantheon Books.pp. 284-311.

World Bank. 2012. Involuntary Resettlement Portfolio Review: Phase I: Inventory of Bank- financed Projects Triggering the Involuntary Resettlement Policy (1990– 2010).Draft. World Bank Social Development Department, Washington, DC.

World Bank. 2014. Involuntary Resettlement Portfolio Review: Phase II: Resettlement

Implementation. Draft. World Bank Social Development Department, Washington, DC.

World Bank. 2017a. Environmental and Social Framework. World Bank, Washington, DC.

World Bank. 2017b. Guidance Note for ESS5 Land Acquisition, Restrictions on Land Use, and Involuntary Resettlement: Draft for Public Comment. World Bank, Washington, DC.

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