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STATISTICS presented at the World Economic Forum recently reminded us about the scale and effect of poverty. According to Oxfam, by next year, more than half of the world’s wealth will sit in the hands of the top 1%. Closer to home, the two richest men in SA have wealth equal to the poorest 26.6-million people (according to Forbes). About half of SA’s population lives in poverty.



It is no coincidence that what is denied by poverty is guaranteed by international and national human rights law, such as the right to food, shelter, education, and access to healthcare. At its core, poverty is the cumulative denial of human rights and thus can only be addressed by their realisation. As about half of SA’s population is affected by poverty, there is an urgent need for effective national and international developmental policies informed by a human rights framework to ensure the eradication of poverty. One place where this is especially necessary is the policies of the World Bank.


The World Bank is responsible for providing financial and technical assistance to developing countries to reduce poverty and support development. Its mission is based on two goals: to end extreme poverty within a generation and to boost shared prosperity. The bank is reviewing its 20-year-old social and environmental safeguard policies at present; the consultation process ended on March 1.


The revised safeguards are intended to convert the World Bank’s aspiration of ending extreme poverty and achieving sustainable development into practical measures.


To fulfil its mission, the World Bank should incorporate a human rights based-approach into the revised safeguards and address the civil, political, social and economic causes of poverty. However, they fail to do so and as a result fail to alleviate poverty. If anything, they may well make it worse.


One example of this comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as reported by Daniel Wesangula in the Guardian newspaper. Wesangula reports that the Congolese government is in the process of signing a deal to build a hydropower dam, financed by the World Bank. It will be built around the same area as two other dams: Inga I and Inga II. These developments have already had a negative effect on nearby communities. People were not compensated for the expropriation of land on which the dams were built; the plans to resettle communities cited only five villages to be relocated and excluded others; and communities no longer have access to the river supplying water to the dams, which is a source of income for them.


For an institution expressly dedicated to poverty reduction, these effects are matters of concern. They entrench poverty and place affected communities in conditions of dependency. These effects could, however, be mitigated by adequate, strongly worded human rights-based safeguards. In order to truly address, prevent and eradicate poverty, the revised safeguards should apply to all ranges of development projects, programmes and policy improvements by World Bank borrowers.


They should also regulate compliance with standards of social and environmental impact assessments. Further, they should guarantee communities’ agency by ensuring access to information on and participation in development projects.


To ensure private sector borrowers respect human rights and play a role in addressing poverty, the World Bank should insist that its private funding body, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is bound by the revised safeguards. This means the IFC must fund only those developments that respect human rights and help eradicate poverty.


We therefore call on the World Bank and the IFC to comply with human rights standards and integrate them into their revised safeguards. Doing so would go a long way towards addressing poverty.


• Nyembe, Belalba and Nase are with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University.

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