Work will expand to fill the time available for its completion, Parkinson’s Law.
I visited once a prison. I keep it in my collection of stories as a reminder of cognitive biases when I prepare projects. And how easy it is to fall into the traps of conventions and assumptions.
It was in a former soviet country. It’s a travel in time. Once the gate closes behind you, the air, the walls, the smell, people looks all say “welcome to urss”. Not a very welcome “welcome” though.
It was a planned trip. The administration knew we are coming. White table cloths on meeting tables betrayed it. You cannot come in an unannounced visit to a prison, unless gifted with invisibility skills. What I could not have planned were my feelings and sensations. It does not help being a lawyer trained in human rights in this case.
After a dull meeting with silent and very tense staff, a guided tour was offered by the administration. After the first wall, the family reunion hall opened its door in front of us. A hall with seven doors: a kitchen, five bedrooms with king size beds, and a bathroom. It’s the dream land for any inmates. For good behavior they get up to five days of family time per year with one of their loved ones. In the kitchen we found a beautiful, big eyed young women. She was cooking a meal for her husband who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I saw sadness and commitment and no trace of resentment in her eyes. Will she be coming every year for the next 18 years to cook meals for her husband? They retrieved to “their” room. Tears filled my eyes.
After the security zone, en-laced in barbed wire, where a cat seemed chez-soi, we were taken into the heart of the prison. The prison has three blocks. The first one we were taken to was presented as exemplary: clean and all beds were made. It was remarkable as it was a large room, 70 by 100 feet, beds one by one, with tiny passages between the endless rows. I asked whether it looks so orderly because they knew that we were coming. No, assured me the head of prison, it’s a norm now, after quite „a lot of invested effort and time into discipline”, whatever that means. It was the mine workers block, who get paid for their work and also get their term cut: a day for three days worked in a nearby mine. The room was filled with testosterone. Me and my other female colleague were safe, behind our colleagues from headquarters and their wide shoulders. In parallel, what I found striking was how relaxed were inmates compared to prison staff. After all, they got it right, it was not them who were inspected!
What followed were a cascade of feelings. An overwhelming feeling of saturation, when I entered the canteen, the feeling of gratitude for my health, when I stepped on the white floor of the medical care unit, the feeling of dignity when the head of administration persuaded us against visiting the remote inmates block, the feeling of bounder-less creativity when I entered the church the walls in which were being painted by an inmate, the feeling of family connection when I looked in the eyes of a 70 old inmate who stabbed his wife, the feeling of enough when have seen two women surrounded by packages of food to fit into a wagon waiting for clearance to enter the prison and feed their dear ones, the awareness of the gift of freedom on the tiny, dark corridors of the solitary confinement ….
We were then taken to a workshop where some inmate were filling their days with wood crafts. Good behavior was a ticket to the wood workshop. I noticed the sharp objects they were using and asked whether there are any incidents/accidents involved. No, assured me again the head of prison. I’ve seen sad portraits, icons and toys cut into wood. I asked an old inmate what is he crafting. “A toy for my daughter” he said. It was a beautiful wooden horse. He was dreaming of freedom…
In this country now the head of prisons is a women. I would like to believe that she sees and feels beyond a wooden horse. And that so do we, those who craft interventions to help.
These are reflections from a long career of a development professional about the importance of passion, the inherent nature of bureaucracies in big international organisations and innovation through learning.
I wish there were stories behind the big and impressive numbers. And the insights into how she kept the passion and her commitment to innovate alive. Perhaps in a new post… Still those who would like to embrace a career in development management might find the article and advice useful.
Idealists among project managers are not a rare species. We want to fix it all, in one go, in a year and within a budget. We pencil in our partners support, commitment and will to respect human rights as firm assumptions. And we proceed, sometimes with a big noisy launching event. I, for one, am guilty on all above accounts.
It’s no news that projects operate in more and more complex environments. When events like the Bhopal industrial accident hit the global news, we start wondering about that complexity, and where on Earth are the traces of the good governance, corporate responsibility and rule of law. Then the question of where are our firm assumptions now crawls in. There are many views on events and project assumptions such as the above. Here are the two cents of mine:
The degree of effectiveness of legal regulation of commercial activity is at the mercy of individual states. Given that the role of international law is still limited in this regard, those in countries with poor governance substantially remain disadvantaged in a global market.
The objectives at a project design phase would be to explore the development of the legal regulation of commercial activity on a national basis and consider the limitations of this for multinationals operating in a global market. The effectiveness of domestic legal regulation in this area needs to be considered, along with limitations of any international approach to the issue. The industrial accident in Bhopal and the extractive industry in Nigeria could be considered among relevant case studies.
Projects designed for Commercial activity have repercussions on fundamental human rights, including the ‘right to life’. More people are killed worldwide by industrial accidents and diseases each year (2.2 million) than are killed in wars (Slapper, 2011). With the progress of globalization the effectiveness of individual jurisdictional safeguards against crime, projects designs need to embed the understanding that financial malpractice and health and safety dangers become severely attenuated, because risk can be simply shifted to the jurisdiction of least resistance (idem). As a consequence, hazardous enterprises move into developing parts of the world, with daunting consequences. This was the case of the defective chemical plant in Bhopal.
The Bhopal case study is illustrative on a number of accounts, showing an interplay between projects and public policies. It shows that such projects can have a far-reaching and detrimental impact on people and on the environment. It provides insights into Government and corporate behaviors, important for stakeholders analysis. The company in question was able to distance itself from the operations of its subsidiary in India. This was also possible due to a certain reluctance of and procrastination on behalf of the government to enforce laws against it in order to protect their citizens. The fear of discouraging inward investment on the part of multinationals was seemingly among factors explaining the government attitude.
The picture becomes even more complex due to a combination of legal, jurisdictional, political, diplomatic and commercial reasons for which the governments and courts of developed nations rarely hold multinationals based in their countries to account for their foreign misdeeds. The arrest of management with their subsequent release, officials’ press statements condemning the management were soft responses to a tragedy of such a scale. Overall, the success in holding those responsible legally accountable has been limited and adequate financial compensation for the victims has not been achieved in Bhopal case.
In such situations, the question whether the international community can provide more effective protection for the vulnerable through the implementation and enforcement of human rights obligations arises. Governments do adhere to international instruments and international organisations. The government of India was no exception in this case. The Indian government had acceded to the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1979 and so at the time of Bhopal the Indian authorities were in theory bound to ensure the implementation of the rights contained in these covenants. These rights include the right to life (Article 6 ICCPR), the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12 ICESCR) and the right to an effective remedy (Article 2 ICCPR). India committed to minimum standards for health and safety by being a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1922. These are all nicely articulated aspirations. The reality is that as it is ultimately the responsibility of each state to incorporate international human rights obligations into national law, and this can be a challenge for the governments of most nations. Political and economic considerations may drive courts and governments into exercising a fair degree of latitude in the implementation and enforcement of these rights, impacting the effectiveness of protection for future generations from the risks of another Bhopal.
The extractive industry is another area to dwell on the effectiveness of regulation of commercial activity. Leading economies rely on oil and gas and this renders oil and gas companies very powerful, leading to an asymmetric relationship between developing countries and these companies. In Nigeria, e.g., this asymmetry is further exacerbated by “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, endemic conflict (Amnesty International, 2009). Local communities have a double disadvantage: the tremendous wealth generated from oil is not benefiting them and they suffer from the resulting pollution caused by oil spills, dumping of waste and gas flaring. This kind of commercial activity impacts people’s ability to enjoy their livelihoods, as fishing and farming is affected, the soil is contaminated and thus many dimensions of human rights e.g. to health, to food, to water, to a healthy environment, to work get abused (Amao, 2011).
Community complaints were directed not only at the activities of corporations, but also at the government for not effectively protecting their interests as stakeholders and not controlling the multinational corporations in question (idem). The Government in his case was openly siding with the foreign oil companies (deploying military forces to protect their infrastructure and personnel e.g. in return for arms supplied for government security forces). Amnesty International in its 2009 report places the responsibility for the human, environmental and economic damage on the Nigerian government for failure to regulate the oil industry effectively despite the many statuts that potentially give the government the legal muscle to do so. The fact that the government is a partner of oil companies and benefits from their activities leaves people and communities without effective access to redress. Even the legal recourse to protest through the ballot box is more theoretical than real given that patronage, political clientelism and populism are underpinning the system in Nigeria (Oxfam, 2009). The government there needs to first meet basic governance prerequisites to be able to effectively protect its citizens. Greater transparency, operating systems and public institutions to monitor and ensure accountability, a free media are needed for a start. In such circumstances, corporations commitments to “comply with applicable laws and regulations … and… give proper regard to health, safety, security and the environment’ (Shell 2006:6) leave the door open to selectivity and allow them to escape oversight (Amao, 2011).
Nigeria signed the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It still does not lead to an automatic and effective enforcement of human rights, as in India’s case above.
States have the duty to protect human rights. It may be ideal, but still aspirational to conclude that government failure to enforce laws or to implement international human rights obligations does not diminish the expectation that corporations honor human rights. And these assumptions need to be subjected to close scrutiny in any related project.
My thanks to Rianne C. ten Veen for the inspiration in the WB822 course at The Open University.