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The ICIJ’s latest target: the World Bank

April 17, 2015

If your target is a mammoth, global institution like the World Bank, it helps to have a global network of muckrakers to hold it accountable.

It’s a role uniquely suited to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who yesterday released the series, “Evicted and abandoned: The World Bank’s broken promise to the poor,” reporting that at least 3.4 million people from Ethiopia to Honduras have been displaced by development projects supported by the bank, in some cases violating their human rights. The stories took 50 journalists across 21 countries nearly a year to document, and The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Spain’s El País, and Brazil’s Agência Pública are among more than 20 international publications releasing coverage in the weeks to come.

Launched in 1997 and part of the Center for Public Integrity, the ICIJ has a history in global financial investigations—the consortium exposed HSBC’s role in hiding global politicians’ offshore assets and the “Luxembourg Leaks” where the “big four” accounting firms helped multinational companies avoid taxes.

Released on the eve of the World Bank’s annual spring meetings in Washington, DC, bank president Jim Yong Kim addressed the latest reports in his press conference, saying, “We are now reviewing our safeguards policies and I am determined that we will learn from the past and that we will do all in our own power to protect people and the environment.”

CJR spoke with senior editor Michael Hudson about the ICIJ’s approach to reporting on the developing world, the logistics of coordinating a cross-continental reporting collective, and the reaction they’ve seen from the World Bank already.

This was a huge investigation for you. How was it brought to your attention, and at what point did it cross from a good story idea to an 11-month commitment you knew you wanted to pursue?

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In the last two or three years, the ICIJ has gotten a reputation of getting mega-leaks and turning them into global stories. But one of the things we were looking for was stories where the impetus had more to do with boots on the ground reporting instead of the opposite—having a big database and then doing the reporting to flesh it out. In this case we were eager to do some reporting where we had people trudging through jungles and visiting small villages, while using ICIJ’s experience, resources, and especially members around the world. We try to do stories that aren’t just about one, two, or three countries, but involve dozens of countries around the world. That’s the best way to use our resources and our journalism model.

Because we only do one or two or three projects at any given time, we throw out a lot of ideas. Our reporter, Sasha Chavkin*, has done a lot of on-the-ground reporting around the world. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for a series of stories on farmworkers dying of kidney ailments in Asia and Latin America and travelled to multiple countries. He noticed a pattern of complaints by communities around the world that World Bank projects were forcing them out of their homes, damaging their livelihoods.

After a month or more of looking at this, we decided this is something we really wanted to dig into. There were so many complaints around the world, and the World Bank is considered a model for the rest of the development finance world. Other development banks around the world base their standards, their social safeguards, on the World Bank. At the same time we became aware that the World Bank was in the process of revising its safeguards, and there were complaints raised by some experts that they were weakening them.

We started reporting, getting leaked documents, talking to current and former bank insiders, but this is not a story that was based on comments or reports by advocacy groups. We did our own reporting.

The media is often criticized for parachuting into the developing world and not understanding, or in some cases even talking to, the locals. Reading your stories, there are characters like the woman in Kenya whose house was burned down, and a husband and wife in Ethiopia where one was beaten and the other raped as they were forced out of their homes. How did you find these people?

Mainly just by showing up and knowing the places where this was going on. In Kenya we had two great reporters on the ground, based in Kenya, Anthony Langat and Jacob Kushner. They went to the forest where the Sengwer people say the Kenya Forest Service is using money from a World Bank funded conservation program essentially as a pretext for forcing people from their ancestral homes.

In most cases we’re writing about, there had been official complaints filed. A local community group, or in some cases a bigger NGO, helped the residents who say they’ve been harmed by projects write an official complaint to the World Bank inspection panel. So we knew the villages that had been affected. In some cases it was really tough—many of these affected communities are in very isolated regions so they were difficult to get to.

Sasha came from [Washington DC] but a lot of the reporting was done on the ground—in Albania, in Brazil, in Kenya—by reporters who are already based there. And that really is the ICIJ model. It’s not Western journalists parachuting in and spending a week or two reporting and then coming back. It’s working with reporters on the ground, having them do the reporting, or maybe we will go to the site and work with a [local] reporter. And that gives us the best of both worlds.

The key is you have reporters in Albania or Nigeria, and are able to connect people and see that they’re working on the same story, that may have exact links or may be really analogous, and get them talking and sharing information. That is what takes great local or national stories and turns them into a global story that connects the dots.

Your stories are global in nature, which is the point of the ICIJ, but it’s a very interesting working model. What are the unique challenges with coordinating a reporting project like this?

One of the things you learn is that it’s really trying to work collaboratively and understanding we can’t control everything that’s going on. Our rule is ICIJ is responsible for the stories that we publish on our site, which often include a lot of information from the field. But the various members in different countries, they’re responsible for their own stories. We don’t tell them how to write them. They’re going to write them the way they know that’s appropriate for their publication or broadcast. A lot of it is the power of suasion, suggesting, urging, discussing, brainstorming.

Journalists are competitive. They don’t like to be scooped by other people; they want to scoop you. But what’s amazing is being able to get together dozens of journalists all around the world and everyone respects the idea that we’re all going to publish together. No one’s going to jump the gun and scoop the competition.

When you come out together it also exponentially increases the impact of the story and the attention, to be part of a big release at the same time. At this point we have 20 organizations releasing stuff [on Thursday] or over the next few days.

There’s no money, no one’s paying us if they run our stories. In some cases the stories initiate with our members. In other cases the stories initiate with us. As we’re doing the reporting we’ll start contacting some of our members or other reporters who aren’t necessarily members but we know are experts on the subject, and start bringing them in. Then at some point, when we feel that the idea is going to be a project that we’re going to put a lot of time into, we send out a message to all our 185 members, saying here’s the basics, here’s what we think we’re going to focus on, are you interested? And then we just keep adding members as things go on.

And ultimately what they print can be the same thing you’re printing, it can be 80 percent your material with their own local spin on it, or it could be something completely different?

Exactly. It can be any combination of the above.

If a member organization stumbles across something explosive, do they have to share it with you if it’s pertinent to the story?

That is our policy. You share everything. It’s radical sharing. When you share with ICIJ you share with everyone. We have an online secure forum that has messaging functions, and you can post documents.

And no one’s reneged on that?

There may be stuff people forget to share or hold back. But I don’t think there’s ever been anything—in any of the stories I’ve done—where somebody had something really hot, a great piece of information, that we didn’t know about. Usually [if something is held back it’s] of in-country or local interest.

It seems the downside of reneging on contributing to the group is presumably that you’ll get cut out next time. And the more that these projects grow in importance the less you want to be left out of the loop.

Absolutely. And we’ve found that competitiveness is usually country specific. They [only] want to scoop their competitors in the country. Some of the more difficult places, in terms of political pressures or the media law systems, actually like being able to point to the fact it’s published internationally because it gives them legal and sometimes political cover to publish.

Were there any unique challenges reporting on an institution like the World Bank as opposed to private organizations like JP Morgan or HSBC? How was the process of getting public documents from the World Bank?

They put a lot of information up online, but the information is often not standardized, especially in terms of finding the figures and estimates for the number of people affected by [resettlement] projects. We had to go through thousands of reports to find this information.

Is that one of the main reasons the World Bank has not been scrutinized in this way before?

I think that’s part of it. The World Bank has acknowledged that its record keeping of people affected by projects has huge shortcomings. They don’t do a good job of monitoring what happens to people on the ground. We were working with this very flawed, mixed, incomplete set of data. But we feel very comfortable because we did a lot of reporting. We did a lot of double checking the data. So when we came up with the 3.4 million figure, we believe that’s an extremely conservative figure. In many cases, there’s a credible argument that thousands or tens of thousands of people who say they were affected by World Bank financed projects haven’t been counted and probably should have been.

Your story shows that World Bank president Jim Yong Kim commented on the resettlement policy back in March when you presented your evidence to them. I’m interested in what effects you’ve seen so far from these reports.

At the end of February, we sent the World Bank a detailed list of questions about what else we need to know, but also our findings, giving them a chance to respond. And we told them that our reporting showed we had found systemic gaps in their enforcement of their safeguards policy for protecting people on the ground. We also cited a key internal review about the bank’s resettlement policies that we’d gotten a leaked copy of.

Five days later, the World Bank made an announcement. Jim Kim personally made an announcement that he’d found major problems with the way the bank handles resettlement cases. And they released three internal reports, including one that we had let them know, in our questions, that we had.

[On Thursday] Kim said, “We did this on our own, based on our own internal reports.” [A statement from the World Bank on Thursday quoted Kim saying “The stories are based on internal Bank documents that I ordered released. I took that action because I believe we must do better in implementing our resettlement policies.”] And they released a five-and-a-half-page action plan.

That’s the timeline. We can’t say that they made the announcement based on our reporting, or based on knowing that this story was coming out. But I can tell you that’s the timeline.

*An ICIJ reporter on the series “Evicted and abandoned: The World Bank’s broken promise to the poor,” Sasha Chavkin, is a former CJR writer

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.