On the banks of Argentina's Parana River, local brickmakers took advantage of the unique qualities of the river's sand and mud to build sustainable, small-scale businesses. Over time, the brickmakers built networks of clients and suppliers-a social fabric that allowed them to carve out comfortable lifestyles. In the 1980s, this social fabric was destroyed, inundated by the rising waters behind the massive Yacyreta Dam.1
For centuries, thousands of impoverished people scraped out a living on the shifting sand islands (known as chars) located in Bangladesh's Jamuna River. The so-called Char people are among the poorest in Bangladesh. Although under normal circumstances, chars might remain for years or decades, in 1999 thousands of the Char people faced losing their homes due to flooding caused by the construction of the Jamuna Bridge project. None of the Char people was scheduled to receive any compensation for the loss of their homes.2
In a remote village one thousand kilometers from Delhi, thousands of rural farmers who live in the Singrauli coal-mining region have seen their villages uprooted and resettled, sometimes more than once. Resistance has been met with police brutality and violence.3
What these communities have in common is that their misfortune resulted from development projects funded by the World Bank-projects ironically aimed at benefiting just such poor and disempowered communities. None of these rural communities was informed of, or allowed to participate in, the decisions that would fundamentally change their lives. The underlying Bank projects were typically designed in closed consultations between their country's finance ministries and World Bank economists.
These communities also have another thing in common: they organized against these development projects, seeking the support of the international activist community, and ultimately bringing claims before the World Bank Inspection Panel ("Panel"). These communities benefited from remarkable local activists who ably linked these communities with international nongovernmental organizations ("NGOs") active in reforming the World Bank. Oscar Rivas and Elias Dias Pena in Paraguay, Majibul Huq Dulu in Bangladesh, and Madhu Kohli in India were key links in the chain of support that allowed the local communities first to learn about their rights under World Bank policies and then to assert those rights at the Panel.
My work at the Center for International Environmental Law ("CIEL") privileged me to be another link in that chain. My colleague Dana Clark and I advised these and other similarly affected people on how to file claims with the Panel. This Essay reflects my experience as an NGO lawyer in pushing for the creation of the Panel, supporting project-affected people in bringing their claims, and then defending the Panel against attacks emanating from inside the World Bank. At times this work has seemed far from the realm of public international law, but that is in fact the point of the Panel-it is a substantial departure from traditional public international law.
Operationalizing the Panel took the active participation of many different players, but the original vision and conceptualization of the Panel came from outside the World Bank-from critics who were looking for ways to make the Bank accountable to the poor communities it was created to serve.4 The Panel was thus created to bridge the gap between international institutions and the people they serve. It was the first international institution that allowed citizens to bypass their national governments in lodging formal complaints that addressed how an international institution affected their lives. Citizens, and the lawyers that represented them, were given direct access to an international forum to press rights-based arguments regarding whether the institution had met its responsibilities. The Panel, then, reflects a citizen advocacy model that has no precedent in international law, outside of a few human rights tribunals. …