This month the World Bank signed an agreement to provide an additional $40 million to the government of Uzbekistan for the Rural Enterprise Support Project. The decision comes two months after the World Bank oversight body, the Inspection Panel, reported that the RESP project is likely linked to forced labor of children and adults. The World Bank has the mandate and leverage with the Uzbek government to drive reforms that would free the Uzbek people from forced labor. When will the Bank take even the basic steps in this direction?
In its latest announcement, the World Bank states that its goals in Uzbekistan are “improving living standards, providing support for economic reforms, modernization of infrastructure and social sectors, as well as providing knowledge and experience with the government and people of Uzbekistan.” Human rights is the foundation for all of these goals, yet the Uzbek government continues to systematically violate the human rights of its citizens, including forced labor in the agriculture sector to which Bank funding is directed. Unconditional funding the Uzbek government while it continues to reject its human rights duties and transparency sustains the state’s abuses.
Agriculture in Uzbekistan is a state-order system, in which the government forces farmers to cultivate and deliver annual quotas of cotton. While the state procurement price leaves farmers in debt, emigrating for work, or, in the worst cases committing suicide, government officials hide the estimated $1 billion of cotton income in in the extra-budgetary “Agricultural Fund,” to which only the highest level government officials have access and knowledge of how the proceeds are used. Farmers reported that they lost $562 for every hectare of cotton produced in 2013, due primarily to the low state procurement price. (This is approximately one-third of annual gross national income per person in Uzbekistan, which the World Bank reports to be $1,720). With this system, the Uzbek government not only benefits from violating farmers’ rights and ensures a pattern of reverse development in rural Uzbekistan but also forces over a million citizens, children and adults, to work in the cotton fields.
The World Bank Inspection Panel investigated the RESP project, because Uzbek citizens filed a complaint, documenting that the World Bank’s project was perpetuating the forced labor of farmers and children and adults in their communities. The Inspection Panel verified the Uzbek citizens’ concerns and postponed further recommendations until the World Bank proceeded to establish independent human rights monitoring of its project and the International Labour Organization advanced its dialogue with the Uzbek government. The ILO appropriately continues to press the Uzbek government to apply international conventions on freedoms from forced labor and child labor, but no one is holding their breath for the Uzbek government to end the forced-labor system of cotton production on which it has depended for a quarter century. During the 2013 cotton harvest, with ILO monitors in the country, the Uzbek government continued to use forced labor on a massive scale. The World Bank using its leverage on the Uzbek government would significantly increase the chances for the ILO to progress with the Uzbek government.
Since 2008, under the RESP projects I and II, the World Bank has financed the Uzbek government for agriculture and completely ignored the government’s systematic use of forced labor of children and adults. During this period, Uzbek civil society, human rights advocates, the International Labour Organization and other UN agencies have continuously reported what amounts to one of the largest state systems of forced labor in the world. The Bank’s Inspection Panel reiterated these concerns and pointed out the immediate action the World Bank should take. The World Bank’s inaction in the face of known human rights abuses and its own oversight body’s findings raises a major concern about its mission in Uzbekistan.
The forced labor of children and adults in Uzbekistan will end when the Uzbek government reforms its totalitarian control of the agricultural sector. The World Bank is uniquely positioned to drive reform but continues to impede its own success by ignoring fundamental human rights. Until the Bank uses its leverage with the Uzbek government to end the use of forced labor in agriculture, Bank investments are merely enabling the government elites to continue the state-order system underpinned by forced labor and layered with corruption.
Basic human rights due diligence is long overdue. The World Bank must act immediately to establish independent monitoring of the RESP and other Bank-financed projects in Uzbekistan.
With its announcement of additional financing for the Uzbek government, the World Bank missed an opportunity to establish and announce independent monitoring. Let us hope the World Bank takes this first step toward financing sustainable development in Uzbekistan soon.