Get a social license do not bulldoze development , demands activist Mfiti

In recent media reports from Malawi it has emerged that a senior cabinet minister George Chaponda was chased from a development meeting by angry community members.  The Minister of Agriculture and also responsible for water development in company of his principle secretary in the ministry were not  allowed to address local communities on a proposed development project.

Godfrey Mfiti
Godfrey Mfiti

The project aims at tapping water from Mulanje Mountain through Likhubula River by Blantyre Water Board to residents of Blantyre City. The water shortage problem in Blantyre city has become acute that residentsoften go without portable clean and safe drinking water for days. This prompted the water Board to hatch this plan of drawing water from the Likhubula River. The River is located in Mulanje District a few kilometers outside Blantyre city.

Ironically the project has not been welcomed by residents of Mulanje district near the Likhubula River who have raised most important human rights concerns. The community members have said the project will not continue unless the government of Malawi helps them in re-afforestation initiatives along the Likhubula River banks. The communities further allege that they also be supplied with clean and safe drinking water.

Are these genuine concerns? Yes these are indeed realistic concerns that needed consideration even before the Minister’s visit.  Was there a human rights impact assessment of the project prior to the Minister’s visit or commencement of the proposed project? Has the Malawi government adopted the UN Guiding principles on business and development? What could have been done better?

Evidently there seems to be no wrong doing on the part of the community as they have fully exercised their entitlement under the universal declaration of human rights. This includes a right to information, right to accept, right to resist apart from other forms of social, cultural and economic rights.

The United Nations since 2011 adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for all member states. Business, Companies and Projects need to comply with human rights in their operations. The requirement is for businesses of all sectors to do Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) before embarking on any new projects. A set of guidelines with the Objective of enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights so as to achieve tangible results for affected individuals and communities. These guidelines apply to all States and to all business enterprises. These guidelines were endorsed by the United Nations Business and Human Rights Council in June, 2011.

The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights demands a Free, Prior, Informed Consent by the local communities on any development projects.  In Malawi projects are often bulldozed through the back door. The views and concerns of the community are not taken into consideration and consultations are limited to rubber stamping development projects regardless of impacts.

The recent developments by the residents of Mulanje district in rejecting this project by Blantyre Water Board in the presence of a senior cabinet Minister is a lesson to Malawi Government. It is high time the authorities realize the importance of the UN Guiding principles in Business and Human Rights. By adopting guiding principles it is possible to facilitate dialogue where government can begin discussions with the concerned communities on the basis of shared values and expectations.

The guidelines also help to manage risks. When human rights are ignored, it involves costs to companies. The companies that adopts guiding principles will acquire a social licence to operate in respective communities. It is in this instance that the Blantyre Water Board is failing to get a social licence to operate.

These UN guidelines demands that Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.Companies must ‘know and show’ respect for human rights through exercising human rights due diligence.

The Blantyre Water Board was supposed to do a human rights due diligence in this project to realise their human rights impacts. This is a harsh lesson to government of Malawi.

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