The African Development Bank (AfDB) is nearing completion of its new set of environmental and social safeguard policies. The AfDB is currently the only multilateral development bank without a standalone safeguard policy on indigenous peoples, and the new environmental and social safeguards are not expected to change this. This is despite strong advocacy from indigenous peoples’ organisations in Africa, and despite the existing jurisprudence and standards on indigenous rights in the African human rights system.
The new standards do, however, explicitly recognise the rights of indigenous peoples in some form, and this is a positive step forward for AfDB and reflects a growing acceptance of indigenous peoples’ rights on the continent.
The question of indigenous peoples has proven controversial at the African Development Bank, where many members of the Board and staff are resistant to the notion that indigenous communities merit specific treatment and are imbued with certain rights. The CSO Coalition on the AfDB and Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) have collaborated to advance and elevate the issue of indigenous peoples at AfDB, producing a joint paper calling for a standalone safeguard policy on indigenous peoples and requesting a formal dialogue between indigenous peoples and the Bank.
In response, AfDB President Donald Kaberuka agreed to host a forum on indigenous peoples in February 2013, the first event of its kind at the AfDB. This forum convened indigenous peoples’ representatives, members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, government ministers, AfDB senior management, and CSOs. This served as a useful exchange to begin dispelling misconceptions within the Bank about the existence of indigenous peoples in Africa.
The AfDB Board of Directors is expected to approve its new safeguard policies in the coming weeks, once a consensus is reached on references to protections for indigenous peoples and other outstanding issues. By all indications, AfDB management will recommend some additional specific provisions regarding indigenous peoples, but will fall short of meeting the standards demanded by indigenous peoples’ organisations and authorities. It appears unlikely that the final provisions will require that indigenous peoples are asked to grant or withhold their free, prior and informed consent for projects impacting on their rights.
While the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ protections would represent a first step in the right direction for AfDB, the prospect of weak implementation – a constant challenge at AfDB and for all multilateral banks - remains a concern. To guard against this, and to support the effective use of the new standards, indigenous peoples’ advocates and organisations have asked that the Bank establish a senior staff position to provide a liaison point for indigenous peoples and tasked with advancing the application of new standards, to convene an advisory board of indigenous peoples, and to devote sufficient attention and resources to training its own staff. Without such efforts, the Bank risks approving standards that it cannot live up to.