- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

The World Bank's board defied the recommendation of its own management on a high-profile project last Friday. As a result, the board was able to keep the bank from abetting the repression of an ethnic minority.

The bank's board, which is made up of 24 executive directors representing 182 countries, forced China on Friday to withdraw its request for a $40 million resettlement project. The loan would have paid for moving about 58,000 Chinese and Hui Muslim farmers onto traditionally Tibetan land. It is very unfortunate that China has chosen to go through with the project on its own, but at least the regime won't be able to exploit the bank's prestige to legitimize the project, which will have a profound impact on Tibetans.

The bank's president, James Wolfensohn, had lobbied hard for the loan. He recommended that the bank conduct additional multimillion dollar studies on the project and that it allow him to make the final decision on the loan, without another board vote. But clearly the board didn't trust Mr. Wolfensohn to make the right decision.

The project initially came under attack last year after the bank broke its disclosure standards while the project was under consideration. After a bank panel submitted a report on the project in April, the board refused to make the findings public until last Friday. The conclusions were damning.

The panel found the bank's loan officers seriously understated the program's future impact on the environment and on the 4,000 Tibetan and Mongol herdsmen living in the area. The bank's management failed even to consider alternatives to resettlement or to resettlement sites. Even more amazing, project managers used inaccurate maps that omitted whole villages in evaluating the resettlement project.

Mr. Wolfensohn has tried to shield the bank from criticism by claiming that much of the uproar is about Tibet-related politics. But what of the bank's own policies regarding the protection of ethnic minorities? And what of the bank's systematic violations of its other policies?

Mr. Wolfensohn said in a June letter that by improving environmental and social analysis of the project, providing better maps and improving disclosure, the bank would "remove all doubt that this is a sound project." But the bank failed in precisely these areas.

The grim truth is that the project is a thinly veiled ethnic-cleansing scheme. The Chinese government feels threatened by spiritual and independent people and has long sought to debilitate the Tibetan culture. Mr. Wolfensohn, meanwhile, was unwilling to alienate China, which threatened to pull out of the bank, over the project.

It is profoundly regrettable that Mr. Wolfensohn chose to do the bidding of a repressive regime at direct cost to a people whose piety and perseverance has won the admiration of the world. Mr. Wolfensohn's poor handling of the resettlement project highlights the urgent need for reform at the World Bank.

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