A Historic Landmark in Development: Reflecting on the First Resettlement Policy

July 1, 2011

Editor’s note: In “A Historic Landmark in Development: Reflecting on the First Resettlement Policy—An Interview with Professor Michael M. Cernea by Professor Hari Mohan Mathur,” Michael M. Cernea discusses the origin of the world’s social policy on development-caused forced displacement and resettlement and his role in its creation.

Some 30 years ago, a historic landmark was set in the thinking and practice of development. On February1980, the world’s first ever social policy on development-caused forced displacement and resettlement (henceforth, DFDR) was officially adopted by the world’s leading development agency. The policy’s name was “Social Issues in World Bank Financed Projects with Involuntary Resettlement,” code-named the “Operational Manual Statement (OMS) 2.33.”

To mark the 30th anniversary. We invited Professor Michael M. Cernea, who in the late ’70s initiated and wrote this policy at the World Bank, for an “interview at distance” to share his recollections and reflections on the policy’s genesis, its itinerary over 30 years, and its relevance today. As the interview became a dialogue over time and resulted in a transcript longer than what this Newsletter can publish, we are printing only brief excerpts; the entire transcript will likely be published in a full-size journal. We will inform the Newsletter’s regular readers on where the full dialogue will be published and become available.

Hari Mohan Mathur: Our Newsletter celebrates 30 years since the adoption of the world’s first official policy framework on population displacement and resettlement caused by development projects. What gave that policy historic significance at that time and subsequently, to this very date?

Michael M. Cernea forced population displacement is one of the most complex problems faced in development, amounting often to a major setback or tragedy for those affected. On the broader social scale it is a costly pathology that must be avoided as much as possible. It occurs on a global scale. The risks and losses it brings cause deep social discontent and may entail political instability.

The adoption of the world’s first Resettlement Policy in 1980 was a crucial novelty, both in the theory and in the praxis of development. No other international agency, and no country Government, had ever before crafted and instituted a multisided social policy to reduce and reverse the damaging chain of effects triggered by coerced displacement and state-imposed asset deprivation. Governments and agencies only willingly unprotected people. That “first adoption” the social policies for international development.

Surely, the new policy had its imperfections in its first iteration. But it represented a paradigm change because it was not just a turning point from an old policy to a new one: it was a big leap from NO policy at all to norm-guided institutional behavior. It called for 180 degree reversals of mind sets and entrenched routines. It instituted both a new theoretical model and a new operational model for implementing DFDR processes.

In subsequent years, the historic importance of the new policy evolved and appeared gradually clearer, as it became the template, the model for similar policies adopted by other multilateral and bilateral development agencies, followed later by private sector banks and corporations as part of the Equator Principles. This process is far from finished; it continues now and will continue in the following years. India’s draft policy on Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement submitted to the Lok Sabha on July 27, 2011, is part of this vast world-wide process.

Mathur: What triggered the preparation and adoption of that policy, 30 years ago, in 1980? If it was so important, why didn’t the World Bank adopt it earlier?

Cernea: A huge social disaster triggered it. Sad as this may sound, the context in which the Resettlement Policy was crafted and adopted re-validates a grim observation: it often takes a disaster to awake Governments and institutions, and make radical change accepted. The social disaster that acted as catalyst in this case was Brazil’s Sobradinho Dam, built by the country’s Government through a WB financed project.

Read the full interview »