Claims of sex abuse, child labour, and poor workers welfare push World Bank to cancel the $190m support, writes ALON MWESIGWA.
It is a Sunday morning and Ruth Ampaire is rushing for prayers at a nearby church. She holds a 10-day-old baby, whom she kisses on the cheek seemingly lost in thought.
She was 17 early last year when she got pregnant. The father of her child worked on the Kamwenge-Fort Portal road.
“He ran way when he noticed I was pregnant. I have never seen him again,” Ampaire, who was in form six at one of the local secondary schools, told The Observer. She has since dropped out and is under her mother’s care.
At Bukonderwa village, just a stone’s throw away from Ampaire’s home, Joan Ninsiima, 17, lives with her grandmother. She was in primary seven when she conceived. Like Ampaire, the man responsible for her pregnancy worked on the same road. He, too, has since vanished.
Ampaire and Ninsiima are portraits of the ills that have befallen the communities in Kamwenge due to the influx of workers from the neighbouring districts on the World Bank-funded 66km Kamwenge-Fort Portal road.
At least nine girls are reportedly to have been impregnated and dropped out of school, according to the report, The Impact of the World Bank funded Kamwenge-Kaborole road construction project on children, which was released in 2014. The report found that the men responsible for these ordeals ran away.
In Kyabyoma sub-county, the residents have held random protests against the state-owned China Railway Seventh Group Company Ltd., the contractor. It is here in Kyabyoma that the company has put a stone quarry to crush stones for the tarmacking of the road.
The locals say they are too close to the quarry and that whenever the stones are blasted, they spread to their homes and damage their property. At Bukonderwa village, Hanifa Kataraka points at the broken glass pane of her door, which she claims was from the blasts at the quarry. She says she received Shs 50,000 to repair it.
Other locals have not been as lucky. The Observer visited Bukonderwa village and many villagers claim their houses had developed cracks but had not been compensated.
The workers complain too. Julius Twesigye, 19, who worked at a stone quarry, has given up. He says they are subjected to long working hours - 7am to 5:45pm - even when they are paid between Shs 5,000 and Shs 8,000 a day.
Other complaints surrounding this project include poor workers’ welfare, child labour, sex abuse, and property destruction to environmental issues from the stone quarry.
Some good has come from the project, though. Saverino Akampa, a boda boda ride in Kamwenge, said his income had grown because of the increased number of people who came to Kamwenge.
At Bukonderwa, the contractor hires tens of locals to cook for the workers, although some complained of poor pay. Besides, some local people say they have seen demand for their food increase because of the influx of more people in the district.
Bigodi trading centre, the contractor’s focal station, is buzzing with business. The population in the area has grown and improved sales.
The World Bank, the financier, thinks the ills outweigh the positives. In December, it cancelled funding for the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project (TSDP), under which the road belongs, because of the locals’ complaints. The bank had committed $190m to the project.
Allen Kagina, the executive director of the Uganda National Roads Authority, visited the area in November and agreed there were issues that needed to be sorted.
“We should not have the workers we pay defiling our girls. We want those specific cases to be actually reported to police and action be taken,” she told reporters.
Work is still ongoing on the road, which has eased the movement of farmers dealing in produce such as maize. In Washington, last month, the World Bank group president Jim Yong Kim said they had found inadequacies in the bank’s supervision for this particular road.
“The multiple failures we’ve seen in this project – on the part of the World Bank, the government of Uganda, and a government contractor – are unacceptable,” said Kim. “It is our obligation to properly supervise all investment projects to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected in our work.”
The local people’s claims came as an attack on the funder, which prides itself as a protector of children rights and the vulnerable. This is not the first time the World Bank is in the spotlight.
Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found 19 World Bank-supported projects in Uganda with confirmed or possible unlawful displacements between 2004 and 2013, representing 31 per cent of all the lender-financed projects here. An estimated 55,318 people were displaced by nine projects without adequate compensation, the ICIJ report said.
Letting the project, the Kamwenge-Fort Portal road, continue would be risking a backlash from human rights advocates.
“We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern,” said Kim in March last year in response. “We haven’t done a good job in overseeing projects involving resettlement…”
Speaking to a radio station in western Uganda last month, Frank Tumwebaze, the minister for the Presidency, said the road project would continue and that “if the young girls were impregnated by Ugandan workers, they should be taken to police, and not delay the whole project.”
But to force government to act on the issues in Kamwenge, the World Bank has suspended two more projects. These are the Albertine Region Sustainable Development Project ($145 million), which supports the protection of the sensitive biodiversity around the oil fields, and The North Eastern Road-Corridor Asset Management Project ($243 million), whose aim is to deepen the integration of East Africa through laying a foundation for regional trade, after it was concerned with the deterioration of human rights.
Kagina said they had put up a contingency plan to make sure the projects are not halted.
This article is a product of The Watchdog, a centre for investigative journalism at The Observer