E.g., 06/04/2023
E.g., 06/04/2023
Minimizing Development-Induced Displacement

Minimizing Development-Induced Displacement

People who are forced to flee from a disaster or conflict usually receive sympathetic attention and international aid. The same cannot be said for the millions of people worldwide who have been displaced by development, even though the consequences they face may be comparably dire.

In decades past, the dominant view of those involved in the "development" of traditional, simple, Third World societies was that they should be transformed into modern, complex, Westernized countries. Seen in this light, large-scale, capital-intensive development projects accelerated the pace toward a brighter and better future. If people were uprooted along the way, that was deemed a necessary evil or even an actual good, since it made them more susceptible to change.

In recent decades, however, a new development paradigm has been articulated, one that promotes poverty reduction, environmental protection, social justice, and human rights. In this paradigm, development is seen as both bringing benefits and imposing costs. Among its greatest costs has been the displacement of millions of vulnerable people.

Assessments sponsored by the World Bank have estimated that every year since 1990, roughly 10 million people worldwide have been displaced by infrastructural development projects for a variety of reasons (see sidebar). In India alone, during the last 50 years, an estimated 25 million have been displaced by development projects. In that same period in China, development projects displaced more than 40 million people, including 13.6 million in the 1990s.

Important Causes or Categories of Development-Induced Displacement
1. Water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation)
2. Urban infrastructure
3. Transportation (roads, highways, canals)
4. Energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines)
5. Agricultural expansion
6. Parks and forest reserves
7. Population redistribution schemes

While people pushed out of their homes by an earthquake or war may be favorably viewed by the media or international aid agencies, the victims of development-induced displacement frequently win no such sympathy. This is so despite the fact that the negative effects of development-induced displacement may be every bit as grave as those faced by people displaced by other forces. As a multi-year study of development-induced displacement by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) concluded, "impoverishment and disempowerment have been the rule rather than the exception with respect to resettled people around the world." The impact has been felt most heavily, according to the WCD study, by marginalized and vulnerable populations:

Evidence suggests that for a vast majority of the indigenous/tribal peoples displaced by big projects, the experience has been extremely negative in cultural, economic, and health terms. The outcomes have included assetlessness, unemployment, debt-bondage, hunger, and cultural disintegration. For both indigenous and non-indigenous communities, studies show that displacement has disproportionately impacted on women and children.

Populations that are displaced—that is, forced or obliged to move—by development projects pose a special challenge to the international community. They may not have crossed a border and may not be considered to be in "refugee-like" circumstances within their own country. Nevertheless, they have been evicted from their homes or places of habitual residence, had their lives and livelihoods disrupted, and face the uncertainties of resettling in unfamiliar and often inhospitable locations. Michael Cernea, a sociologist who has researched development-induced displacement and resettlement for two decades, writes that "Like becoming a refugee, being forcibly ousted from one's land and habitat by a dam, reservoir or highway is not only immediately disruptive and painful, it is also fraught with serious long-term risks of becoming poorer than before displacement, more vulnerable economically, and disintegrated socially."

Cernea's impoverishment risk and reconstruction model (IRR) proposes that "the onset of impoverishment can be represented through a model of eight interlinked potential risks intrinsic to displacement." These are:

1. Landlessness
2. Joblessness
3. Homelessness
4. Marginalization
5. Food insecurity
6. Increased morbidity and mortality
7. Loss of access to common property
8. Social disintegration

Others have suggested the addition of other risks such as the loss of access to public services, loss of access to schooling for school-age children, and the loss or abuse of human rights.

Guiding Solutions?

As the problem of development-induced displacement has attracted more attention, various ideas have been put forward to minimize the problem or mitigate its consequences. Key among these are the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, formulated by a team of international legal scholars and presented to the United Nations in 1998. These were the first guidelines developed within the context of human rights and humanitarian law to address internal displacement and development-induced displacement.

The Guiding Principles define internally displaced persons as "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border." Principle 6 goes on to state that "Every human being shall have the right to be protected against being arbitrarily displaced from his or her home or place of habitual residence;" this prohibition against arbitrary displacement "includes displacement in cases of large-scale development projects which are not justified by compelling and overriding public interests [italics added for emphasis]."

In the planning and implementation of development projects, the Guiding Principles maintain that it is incumbent on the authorities first to explore all feasible alternatives to avoid displacement altogether. Where it cannot be avoided, say the authors, development-induced displacement should be minimized along with its adverse consequences. Moreover, authorities must demonstrate that such displacement is justified by compelling and overriding public interest. In all instances, displacement should not threaten life, dignity, liberty, or security and it should be effected in conditions of adequate shelter, safety, nutrition, and health.

According to these principles, in situations other than during the emergency phases of disaster or armed conflict—and this would include most instances of development-induced displacement—the displacement must be lawfully mandated and carried out; it must seek the free and fully informed consent of those affected, as well as their active participation; it must guarantee compensation and relocation, where applicable; and it must be subject to the right of judicial review and effective remedy. Finally, the authorities must take special care to protect against the displacement of indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists, and others with special attachment to their lands.

As a cause of displacement, it must be said that development is different from conflict and even natural disasters. Some disasters may be inevitable, just as some conflicts may be necessary, but no one would view them as good in and of themselves. Development, on the other hand, is seen as a right to which all people should have access. But just as people have a right to development, they have a right to be protected from development's negative effects, including arbitrary eviction and the loss of economic, political, civil, and human rights.

In the eyes of a growing number of development workers and theorists, the state's right of "eminent domain"—the power of a state to take private property for public use—needs to be balanced against a human being's right to home and property. While development can be the proper expression of a state's responsibility to ensure the protection and welfare of its citizens, where development leads to arbitrary displacement, injustice, and impoverishment, the responsibility still falls primarily to the state to take corrective action. Where this cannot or will not be done, the international community must take steps to respond.

What is needed, as suggested by the WCD, is that "an approach based on 'recognition of rights' and 'assessment of risks'…be developed as a tool for future planning and decision making." Such an approach would build upon the normative framework established by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the evolving network of governments, international organizations, and private organizations committed to their implementation.

The Representative of the Secretary-General (RSG) on Internally Displaced Persons, appointed in 1992 at the request of the UN Commission on Human Rights, could take a lead role in lessening the negative consequences of development-induced displacement by including such issues in reports to the commission. The UN's IDP Unit, set up in 2002 in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, likewise could give attention to vulnerable populations displaced by development projects.

Missions already completed by the IDP Unit have included visits to Indonesia and Sudan, two countries with substantial levels of development-induced displacement. It would be a significant breakthrough if an RSG mission to Burma (Myanmar) could be arranged, complete with an investigation into development-induced displacement. Such a probe could encompass the widespread displacement from neighborhoods in the capital city of Rangoon (Yangon), as well as displacement and abuse of ethnic minorities in the building of the Yadana natural gas pipeline, currently the single largest foreign investment project in Burma.

Another area in which the RSG could have a positive impact on the victims of development-induced displacement would be in organizing a consultation with UN and various other international organizations to standardize operational guidelines for development projects that may involve displacement. Such a dialogue would likely include the UN Development Program, the World Food Program, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the various expert bodies, special rapporteurs, and working groups serviced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, lending institutions (including the World Bank and regional development banks), governments, nongovernmental organizations, and selected private corporations.

Those working in the development field increasingly recognize that the highest priority is to avoid displacement in the first place. Failing that, a positive next step towards minimizing the negative consequences of development-induced displacement would be to expand the Guiding Principles to spell out procedural guarantees, thereby ensuring that displacement is carried out in a manner consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law. Such guarantees could play a key role in the work of those whose aim it is to analyze potential impacts, whether social, economic, cultural, or environmental, minimize impoverishment risks, and maximize reconstruction potentials.

This article is adapted from a paper written for the Brookings Institution, "Risks and Rights: The Causes, Consequences and Challenges of Development-Induced Displacement" (2002).


Cernea, Michael. 2000. "Risks, Safeguards and Reconstruction." In Michael Cernea and Christopher McDowell, eds, Risks and Reconstruction: Experiences of Resettlers and Refugees. World Bank. Washington, DC.

Cernea, Michael. 1999. "Why Economic Analysis is Essential to Resettlement: A Sociologist's View." In Michael Cernea (ed) The Economics of Involuntary Resettlement: Questions and Challenges. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Cernea, Michael. 1996. "Bridging the Research Divide: Studying Development Oustees." In Tim Allen (ed), In Search of Cool Ground: War, Flight and Homecoming in Northeast Africa. London: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Africa World Press and James Currey.

Downing, Theodore E. 2002. "Avoiding New Poverty: Mining-Induced Displacement and Resettlement." International Institute for Environment and Development.

Muggah, Robert. 2000. "Through the Developmentalist's Looking Glass: Conflict-Induced Displacement and Involuntary Resettlement in Colombia," Journal of Refugee Studies. 13(2): 133-164.

United Nations, 1999, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. New York: Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs.

World Bank Environment Department, 1994, Resettlement and Development: The Bankwide Review of Projects Involving Involuntary Resettlement, 1986-1993. Washington, DC: World Bank.

World Commission on Dams. 2000. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. London and Sterling, Virginia: Earthscan.