Why you should care

Recent lawsuits against aid agencies could yield a fairer and more humane international development system. 

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Maybe it’s not impossible to sue an aid agency, but it’s damn difficult. Sometimes it requires a stakeout.

Outside Manhattan’s Asia Society last week, process servers lay in wait. Their quarry: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the evening’s speaker. Cars with diplomatic plates rolled up. Ban emerged. According to lawyer Stanley Alpert, one of the process servers joined a crowd of well-wishers, moved to shake Ban’s hand, and — bam! — instead served him a complaint by Haitian cholera victims against a U.N. peacekeeping force. The U.N. maintains that a security guard interceded and slapped the papers away before they touched Ban. Alpert maintains Ban got served.

Massive, well-publicized and terribly embarrassing for aid agencies, such lawsuits could change behavior — even if unsuccessful.

And the odd tableau reveals one of the great ironies of foreign aid: the very institutions that stand for rule of law, human rights and betterment of mankind are generally immune from courtrooms — even when they screw up mightily, as seems the case in Haiti.

The vast weight of scientific evidence indicates that in October 2010, United Nations peacekeepers inadvertently contaminated a major river with the cholera bacteria. Since then, some 8,500 Haitians have died from cholera, according to the latest figures from the country’s health ministry, with more than 700,000 infected out of a population of just 10 million. At least three lawsuits on their behalf have been filed against the U.N.

Massive, well-publicized and terribly embarrassing for aid agencies, such lawsuits could change behavior. Even if ultimately unsuccessful, they could force more circumspection and influence the course of development down the road, making it hew better to human rights principles, observers say.

In March, an Ethiopian farmer, a “Mr. O,” filed suit against Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID). Mr. O alleges that the British government supported an Ethiopian “villagisation” scheme that was supposed to settle 1.5 million people near roads and schools, but ended up forcibly displacing them, sending them to a refugee camp and selling their land to foreign investors. DFID has long been one of Ethiopia’s donors; it’s slated to spend some $600 million on the country in FY 2014-15. Mr. O’s lawyers seek a declaration that DFID violated its human rights policies and that it should investigate, publicize the investigation and ensure that DFID isn’t involved in repression.

Man with UN helmet and many Haitians around him

Haiti’s strain of cholera brought by Nepalese peacekeepers.

Source Arie Kievit/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

The suits are different — one alleges direct negligence, the other support for a repressive regime — but both will likely face an immunity challenge. The United Nations, most donors and NGOs enjoy some immunity for activities judged to be within the scope of their mission.

But is polluting a river with a deadly bacteria an integral part of a peacekeeping mission? We would think not, but the U.S. government seems to think otherwise. In March, the Department of Justice intervened in the Haiti cholera case, arguing for a wide scope of immunity. It’s unlikely that the Southern District of New York, where the first suit was filed, will go forward.

For the supposed beneficiaries of foreign aid, there’s little to do when aid horribly messes up.

To be sure, immunity is not the sole reason few lawsuits are launched against aid agencies. “Litigation can be very lengthy — drawn-out, uncertain and above all costly,” says Natalie Bridgeman Fields, Executive Director of Accountability Counsel, which helps people harmed by big development projects. Her firm works outside court, typically through agencies’ internal dispute-resolution mechanisms. Accountability Counsel’s cases, which include labor violations cases in World Bank-funded projects and hydroelectric dam displacements, can be resolved in a year, rather than a decade, she says. “The [internal complaint] system is set up to not require lawyers — you could fill out a complaint on a napkin, and that’s the entry cost,” she says.

Critics of aid lawsuits sometimes liken such actions to biting the hand that feeds you. What right do beneficiaries of first-world largesse have to criticize? Such critics seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion that aid could do harm.

It can and sometimes does. For the supposed beneficiaries of foreign aid, there’s little to do when aid horribly messes up — when it, say, relocates refugees to a toxic dump site, or when it contaminates waterways, or when it supports a repressive government that tortures its citizens. There’s no one to sue, there’s no one to vote out of office and there’s rarely even a complaints hotline.

Group of people around water with buckets doing laundry

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Source Dubbelman Guus/Redux

The Haiti and Ethiopia cases may change that. The time, cost and — perhaps most of all — negative publicity that accompanies such suits can affect day-to-day policy at big institutions. Right now, international financial institutions, like the World Bank and IMF, don’t merely argue they’re immune from lawsuits, but act like it, too, says Bridgeman Fields. “They don’t even like to use the words ‘human rights.’ To the extent there’s progress on the legal front, that could translate into due diligence and better compliance,” she says.

In England, at least, the public seems more watchful about which regimes their tax dollars are supporting. In London, one hot topic at this month’s summit on ending sexual violence in conflict was whether DFID is underwriting human rights abuses by security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo. DFID has disbursed some $85 million of a pledged $102 million to the DRC’s security forces.

Satisfaction might elude plaintiffs but maybe future recipients will thank them.

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