On the wrong side of development

For much of Lesotho’s history, there was little to no investigative journalism in the country. There has long been a vibrant local press, writing in both Sesotho and English, dating back to the first publication of Leselinyana la Lesotho in 1863 and the publication of the first issues of Naledi ea Lesotho, the first independent secular paper in 1904. Much of the journalism through the period of colonial rule and after independence has focused on local politics, religion and the plight of Basotho migrants to South Africa. Despite the arrival of independence in 1966, Lesotho experienced a 23-year period of autocratic rule from 1970 to 1993. During this time, many journalists were not able to operate freely with full legal protections. This is best illustrated by the assassination of Leselinyana editor Edgar Mahlomola Motuba in 1981 by individuals upset that the paper was publishing articles critical of the government. Even now, however, journalists can still be at risk, as the shooting of Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri and the flight of journalist Keiso Mohloboli into exile in July 2016 demonstrated.
The sometimes-hostile climate toward journalists in Lesotho helps explain the lack of robust investigative reporting, although the 2016 formation of the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, an outfit funded in part by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, is heartening.

With a lack of investigative reporting in Lesotho, much of the res-ponsibility for breaking news of public scandals and keeping a watch on policy implementation has fallen on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in Lesotho and abroad. The series of excerpts below highlight how the lack of democratic structures, viable avenues for public participation in big projects and local investigative journalism have led to negative outcomes for many individuals and communities impacted by the construction of the mountain dams that supply water to South Africa. In this excerpt, the authors highlight the impact that corruption has played on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), how the compensation scheme for those Basotho displaced by the project has been inadequate, and how viable local partnerships with affected communities can be built. While the published report came too late to mitigate most of the problems with the first phase of the LHWP, it has led to significant changes in later stages of the project. The reporting also highlighted the need for more high-quality investigative work in Lesotho.

The excerpts were written by four individuals. The co-editors of the overall report were Mabusetsa Lenka Thamae, a Mosotho who worked for the Maseru-based Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), and Lori Pottinger, an American working for International Rivers. Both of them authored part of the excerpt as well. Additionally, acclaimed sociologist Thayer Scudder and Korina Horta, an economist working for Environmental Defense, also appear as authors. With most of the authors of the report based outside Lesotho, the report also highlighted the need to include more local voices in reporting projects.
The LHWP was first negotiated in the mid-1980s between the apartheid South African government and a military regime in Lesotho that had been put in power largely through the machinations of the apartheid regime. Thus, the treaty that governs the project was implemented when the rule of law was limited in both countries and the freedom of the press curtailed. This meant that the interests of both governments regarding revenue and the flow of water largely superseded the interests of individuals and communities displaced by the project.

While this report came out too late to change processes involved in the uprooting of communities for the construction of Katse and Mohale Dams in Phases IA and IB, the efforts of the individual authors and of the NGOs involved have kept the interests of communities slated for displacement closer to the centre of Phase II negotiations. The first contracts for the latest dam were awarded in late 2017. The jury is still out, however, on whether communities affected by the new Polihali Dam will receive meaningfully better compensation. The burgeoning investigative press in Lesotho will hopefully pick up the important work that this consortium of NGOs started. To do so, they will have to continue the meaningful collaboration with individuals and communities that the TRC and International Rivers pioneered. They will remain indebted to these NGOs for the publication of reports like this one that have forced the government in Lesotho to be more responsive to the needs of its own citizens and have pushed multi-lateral organisations like the World Bank to be more responsive to problems within projects they are funding.

On the Wrong Side of Development Transformation Resource Centre, Edited by Mabusetsa Lenka
Thamae and Lori Pottinger, 2006

The Lesotho Courts have shown that the project was marred by corruption from its earliest days. A dozen major multinational firms and consortia on the project were accused of bribing the CEO of LHDA, the agency in charge of the project, after a Swiss bank account in his name was discovered. Starting in 1999, the Lesotho courts have waged an unprecedented fight against corruption, which represents a path-breaking model for the courts in other countries. So far Lesotho has successfully convicted three of the world’s leading construction and dam building companies: Acres of Canada, Lahmeyer GmbH of Germany and Spie Batignolles of France. The Canadian and German companies have also lost their appeals in the Lesotho Courts. Other major international companies are still being investigated.

The Lesotho government remains undaunted by the vested interests behind the big companies it has chosen to prosecute. It is essential to show ‘zero tolerance’ for bribery, says Leaba Thetsane of Public Prosecutions. ‘We have demonstrated to the international community that corruption is not just a Third World problem,’ he said. But the cost of prosecuting these companies has been high. According to the Lesotho Attorney General, Fine Maema, the court cases have cost the government $4.3 million as of 2004 – 2% of the country’s annual budget for public services. Lesotho believed that international donors like the World Bank had promised to provide financial assistance to fund the cases, but no such funding has been given to date, and the World Bank denies that it ever promised financial support.

The Lesotho court case is the only national-level prosecution involving multinational companies building a World Bankfinanced project that we know of. So how has the World Bank reacted to the bribery convictions in Lesotho? After initially declaring that there was too little evidence to debar Acres International, the Bank finally debarred the company in July 2004 – barely a week after testimony by the chief prosecutor for the Lesotho courts in front of the United States Senate, and two years after the Lesotho courts had found Acres guilty … In view of the emphasis of the G8 and northern countries more broadly on ‘corruption in Africa’ being an obstacle to development, the Lesotho court cases make it very clear that northern companies play a key role in this corruption and may often initiate it in the first place.

The World Bank’s Resettlement Policies
By Thayer Scudder

The Bank’s resettlement policies, along with the 1986 Treaty’s emphasis on ‘maintaining’ living standards (as opposed to providing new development opportunities to affected individuals and communities), are a major cause for an unsatisfactory resettlement process … (This approach) has been shown by research not only to not restore incomes but rather to leave the majority worse off, which is why I consider Bank policies as partly responsible for its documented record of failed resettlement. There are several explanations for such a result. First, the Commission assumed wrongly that a compensation policy, as opposed to a balance between compensation and development initiatives, could restore living standards. The Bank’s most recent resettlement policy (2001) also is at fault here, ‘compensation’ being mentioned 19 times while ‘development’ is mentioned only four times.

Second, a restoration approach fails to take into consideration the fact that living standards for a majority of resettlers tend to drop during the long planning process (often over ten years) that precedes construction (or first disturbance as mentioned in the Treaty) and during the initial years immediately after physical removal. One reason is that government services and other external investments, including schools, clinics and economic development programs, are stopped or put on hold while those to be resettled are often told to stop improving housing, upgrading farms and making other investments in what planners assume will be a future reservoir or project area. In addition, the process of physical removal makes heavy demands on resettlers that delay for one or more years their reestablishing themselves in a new area, with a new host population with whom resettlers must compete for land, social services and jobs, and with, more often than not, increased government control of resettler activities.

Third, pre-project surveys carried out to establish a benchmark against which restoration can be measured are known to underestimate income and living standards which have already been lowered due to project-related cessation of investments in the area. Fourth, the Bank’s safeguard policies deal only with direct economic and social impacts. Ignored are a wide range of sociocultural effects associated with forced removal from a preferred homeland, the psychological stress affecting the elderly and women in particular, and increased rates of illness and death that have been reported in resettlement areas where, more often than not, population densities increase, and water supplies and food (at least during initial years) are apt to be inadequate.

Fifth, resettlement tends to be associated with increased cash expenditures because many resettlers, as with LHWP, are moved to less fertile soils which require costly inputs to provide equivalent yields, have less access to common property resources for grazing, fuel, building materials and for foraging, and become more dependent on credit and the risk of indebtedness.

Public Participation
By Mabusetsa Lenka Thamae

Public participation is a process of engaging communities, informing, involving, and making them aware of their rights in connection to the Project. It means participation of all potential stakeholders who may have an interest in the project, whether directly or indirectly … We have come to learn that public participation should be facilitated by the presence of a democratic culture. There are now many grievances coming from the communities which ought to have been anticipated and put right, if Lesotho had been a democratic state when the LHWP Treaty was concluded between the governments of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa. The then-military government in Lesotho and the Apartheid South Africa did not create a conducive atmosphere for soliciting public opinion and meaningful participation in the (Lesotho Highlands Development Authority) (LHDA) compensation policy.

LHDA had what was called a community participation office, which was really doing office work rather than community work in the field. LHDA should have offices in the field, close to the communities. This would have made it easier to respond on the spot to the many grievances and concerns from the communities. The absence of offices has resulted in community members going in their hundreds to LHDA offices; this did not only show the inefficiency of LHDA but it was embarrassing as well to see so many people around the offices. The LHDA participation office set up community committees to make work easier. The community liaison committees (CLAs), as they were called, were supposed to take concerns of the communities to LHDA and to get responses back to the communities. While this was not a totally bad idea, it came as a surprise to TRC field workers that the issues taken up by the community representatives were often at variance with those of the larger community … The authorities must go to the villages to check if the committees do the work for which they were established. This office should really use participatory methods to capture the concerns. The approach should equally be a respecting one because if communities have a feeling that they are not respected, they will not cooperate as is required. Our experience has also been that it is not enough to just go to the communities once or three times and claim that results have been forthcoming; it must be a patient, deliberate engagement.

Further reading

Devitt, Paul and Robert K. Hitchcock. 2010. ‘Who Drives Resettlement? The Case of
Lesotho’s Mohale Dam,’ African Study Monographs, 31(2), 57–106.
Hitchcock, Robert K. 2015. ‘The Lesotho Highlands Water Project: Dams,
Development, and the World Bank,’ Sociology and Anthropology, 3(10), 526–538.
Mwangi, Oscar. 2007. ‘Hydropolitics, Ecocide and Human Security in Lesotho: A Case
Study of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project,’ Journal of Southern African Studies,
33(1), 3–17.
Thabane, Motlatsi. 2000. ‘Shifts from Old to New Social and Ecological Environments
in the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme: Relocating Residents of the Mohale Dam
Area,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, 26(4), 633–654.