World Bank Tibet project a test of Wolfensohn’s leadership

Tomorrow, the World Bank is set to vote on what has become the most controversial project in President Wolfensohn’s four-year tenure.

The vote will decide whether the Bank will underwrite the resettlement of 57,000 Han Chinese and Chinese Muslims into a traditionally Tibetan and Mongolian area on the Tibetan plateau. Chinese population influx has gradually turned Tibetans into a minority in urban areas in their homeland and is identified by the Dalai Lama and many experts as the greatest threat to the survival of the Tibetans as a distinct people and culture.

The International Campaign for Tibet and a large international coalition of environmental, human rights and cultural survival organizations are calling on the Bank to withdraw the project.

According to Bank sources, President Wolfensohn and the Bank’s Board of Directors, including U.S. Director Jan Piercy, are under tremendous pressure by China to approve the project on Tuesday. If the project does not proceed as planned, China has threatened to “re-evaluate its relationship with the Bank,” and even to pull out of the Bank altogether. China is the Bank’s largest borrower.

President Wolfensohn, the Bank’s Board and many senior Bank officials reportedly want to avoid the Tuesday vote in order to avert what would be an extremely damaging, drawn-out controversy. However, late Friday an effort by Executive Directors, 60 members of Congress and others to withdraw or postpone the vote seemed to have failed.

“Tibetan communities are in desperate need of assistance, but the project designed by Bank staff would be a disaster and would inflame ethnic tensions,” said John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, a non-profit monitoring and advocacy organization.

“It is like telling Kosovo Albanians that it is justifiable to move 60,000 Serbs into Kosovo if certain economic conditions are met,” Mr. Ackerly added.

On June 18 the International Campaign for Tibet filed a formal challenge to the project with the Inspection Panel of the World Bank, setting in motion a process which could lead to a in-depth investigation. The World Bank Inspection Panel is a quasi-independent body created by the Bank as a mechanism for holding the Bank accountable for violations of its policies and procedures.

In the design of this project, the Bank has blatantly violated policies on information disclosure, environmental assessment, indigenous peoples, resettlement and pest management. The project is also likely to become entangled with and bring significant economic benefit to local prison labor camps.

“Management has abdicated its responsibility to ensure compliance with World Bank policies and procedures and by rushing this flawed project for approval has provoked an institutional crisis,” said Dana Clark, a senior attorney and World Bank analyst at the Center for International Environmental Law.

The World Bank project would mark the first time that a major international lending agency has underwritten Chinese population influx, a dangerous precedent for the Tibetan people whose distinct culture and identity are threatened by the very process which the Bank now proposes to fund.

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