Last week in Melbourne the Cambodia-based NGO, Bridges Across Borders, released its study into the resettlement impacts of ADB and AusAID-funded Cambodian Railway Project at a seminar hosted by Monash University. The study — Derailed — documents in clear and depressing detail the consistent failing of the project to deal fairly and justly with those forced by the project to relocate. In particular, it finds that the project has violated the ADB’s safeguard policies (by which it is bound) in multiple areas: it failed to provide adequate information or engage in meaningful consultation with resettled families; it failed to provide adequate compensation; it has failed in providing adequate livelihood restitution; and has failed to provide adequate relocation sites.

As a result, a high proportion of relocated families, many of whom would already have been classed as ‘vulnerable’, are worse-off than before, with the majority of those studied now plunged into unsustainable private debt as a result of their relocation losses.

In November last year, a group of relocatees, confronted with a belligerent and intimidatory Cambodian Government, formally made a complaint to the ADB through its accountability mechanism, in the hope of having some of their grievances redressed. If the past history of this mechanism is anything to go by, this will be a frustrating, drawn out and complex process for these people, with only a tenuous possibility of some redress out the other end.

But what of AusAID’s responsibility? As was noted in the discussion during the launch of the Bridges study, AusAID has no safeguard policies covering involuntary relocation and it has no grievance mechanism by which project affected people can seek some redress. I assume that AusAID’s position is that the ADB’s policies and accountability mechanism will cover it. But is that good enough?

In an information paper on the project released last December, AusAID states:

Resettlement is a complex issue and before becoming a project partner, AusAID recognised that it would be a major challenge. Nevertheless, one of the reasons Australia decided to become involved in this project was to ensure that people affected by this project would receive shelter and access to basic services after being resettled. AusAID interventions have helped to ensure that families are not resettled until basic facilities such as water and electricity are in place at relocation sites.

According to the Bridges report, these are precisely the areas of some of the more egregious failures in the project.

It seems that AusAID has failed significantly on its stated intention in its involvement in such a risky project, yet it has no policy or process which lays out its responsibilities for redress for affected peoples. Whatever AusAID does in response, it will be ad hoc and dependent on AusAID’s willingness to act.

Perhaps most disturbing for me is the depressing sense of inevitability about all of this. In 2007 and early 2008, when in another capacity, I was involved in a series of meetings with AusAID on these very issues. I learned of the Cambodian Railway Project in one meeting on AusAID’s new infrastructure funding in the Mekong region. My response was essentially (in polite terms), ‘Are you mad? With the Cambodian Government’s resettlement record this can only go one way — south!’. At this very time, the ADB was still mired in a long standing and controversial dispute over relocation from its Highway 1 Project in Cambodia, which offered a myriad of lessons.

As it became clear that AusAID was committed to go through with this, and other infrastructure work in the Mekong, I became engaged in a process of encouraging AusAID (and then Minister McMullan) to review its (non-existent) safeguard framework, and to bolster protections for affected peoples. In a paper submitted to AusAID and the Minister, I observed:

Through the Infrastructure for Growth Initiative and the Mekong Subregion Program, AusAID is becoming increasingly involved in funding large scale infrastructure projects. Given the nature of development projects, it is inevitable that some of these projects will become embroiled in difficult social and environmental issues. It is imperative that AusAID has polices and processes which will be adequate to meeting these challenges.

The paper went on to propose that AusAID build a safeguard framework with three pillars: safeguard policies (environment, involuntary relocation, indigenous peoples etc); a disclosure policy and process; and a grievance mechanism. After a series of polite meetings on this issue, it became clear that nothing of this sort was going to happen.

It has been put to me that there are indeed very good reasons for AusAID not to ‘duplicate’ the policies or processes of a multilateral partner, and this would certainly be consistent with the technocratic consensus on aid effectiveness. Wouldn’t it be better to invest energies into making the multilateral safeguards better? And perhaps AusAID’s role has made a difference in this particular project – might not it have been worse without them?

Perhaps. At an abstract level I can see logic in both these arguments. But at this very time a broad international coalition of groups were indeed campaigning to improve the ADB’s safeguard and accountability processes, yet the Australian Government’s support for such moves, when compared amongst the pack of major ADB donors, was at best mediocre. And in the real life circumstances of the Cambodian Railway Project, it seems clear that – irrespective of whether you think it better for AusAID to have its own systems or to ‘add value’ to those of their partners – AusAID (and, of course, the ADB) severely underestimated what is required to protect the interests of the vulnerable. And all of this when there was a multitude of lessons and voices clearly demonstrating how hard it would be to do this sort of relocation fairly in Cambodia. If AusAID’s contribution to the Cambodian Railway Project has improved its outcomes, then it is from a disturbingly low base. Could anyone seriously be happy with this?

So the question remains for me, what now is AusAID’s responsibility to those who have been poorly treated at the hands of the Cambodian Railway Project?

I cannot penetrate how these things are played out within an institution like AusAID. I am sure it is complicated. However, to an outsider, the experience is one of bouncing off a wall of crushing institutional apathy. As I listened last week to the stories of suffering and hardship from the Cambodian Railway Project, I could not but help feel sick and saddened. None of this should have happened.

Jonathan Cornford works for Manna Gum, an independent Christian not-for-profit organsiation.