Earlier this week on August 1, 2011, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) released its newly revised Environmental and Social Standards and Access to Information Policy. In the wake of scarce natural resources, environmental degradation, and severe social problems, the IFC the first enacted a Policy and Performance Standards on Social and Environmental Sustainability and a Policy on Disclosure of Information in 2006, aiming to mitigate social and environmental risks, incorporate sustainability strategy in businesses and projects financed by the IFC, and enhance development opportunities in its private sector investments. After three years of implementation, IFC launched an 18-month Policy Review process to assess the effects and impacts of its Sustainability Policy framework, consult with stakeholders on lessons learned and areas for improvement, and update the Performance Standards and Disclosure Policy.
On May 12, 2011, IFC’s Board of Directors approved the updated Policies and Performance Standards and they will become effective on January 1, 2012. Main changes related to human rights and labour are summarised below. General changes included a more clearly defined application scope that extends to IFC’s Advisory Services and to Financial Intermediaries (representing a quarter of IFC’s financing in FY10), detailed requirements under different scenarios, corrective or mitigation mechanisms as follow-up, and increased consideration for affected communities and other stakeholders, reflecting IFC’s commitment to reducing negative impacts and pursuing positive development outcomes and broader sustainability goals.
While not explicitly referencing the recent work of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General, John Ruggie, IFC’s revised Policy on Environmental and Social Sustainability alludes to the Business and Human Rights Framework and Guiding Principles in the newly added section that “recognizes the responsibility of business to respect human rights”, including the responsibility to “avoid infringing” human rights, to “address adverse human rights impacts” the business may have caused or contributed to, and to establish “access to an effective grievance mechanism”. However, for NGOs that were seeking more extensive coverage of human rights, the changes do not go far enough. For example, the human rights standards referred to only cover the UN Declaration on Human Rights, their two associated Conventions (ICCPR and ICESCR) and eight ILO Conventions, rather than all core human rights conventions.
A provision in an earlier version of the Policy stating that IFC “may…refrain from financing the business activity” where there was a “risk of being complicit in gross human rights violations” that was criticized by NGOs as implying that other, less severe human rights violations were acceptable, was subsequently dropped from the final version which just states that “certain risks may require IFC to refrain from supporting the…business activity”.
Furthermore, the revised Policy and Performance Standards do not incorporate an explicit requirement to conduct a human rights impact assessment and does not contemplate the IFC performing human rights due diligence assessments, but rather, limiting the IFC’s role to reviewing the company’s processes to identify risks and impacts.
Under Performance Standard (PS) 2: Labor and Working Conditions, significant changes include the incorporation of human trafficking under the Forced Labor provision that prohibits clients (recipients of IFC financing) from employing “trafficked persons” where trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
In addition, PS 2 requires the client to put in place and implement policies on the quality and management of worker accommodation and provision of basic services. Monitoring of third party employers and ensuring contracted workers have access to a grievance mechanism has also been incorporated into the updated PS 2. Moreover, the supply chain provision under PS 2 has been expanded to require monitoring of suppliers where “there is a high risk of significant safety issues” in addition to the previously stated risks or incidents of child and/or forced labor.
In what may be perceived as a win for NGOs, the IFC has adopted the concept of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in regard to relationships with Indigenous Peoples (PS 7) whereas previously PS 7 only required “FPIConsultation”. Also, under PS 1: Assessment and Management of Social and Environmental Risks and Impacts (previously titled, “Social and Environmental Assessment and Management Systems”), the client is required to develop a Stakeholder Engagement Plan with a slightly broader definition of stakeholders, to implement and maintain a procedure for handling external communication associated with environmental and social performance as part of its environmental and social management system, and to disseminate information among affected communities.
Overall, the changes made in relation to human rights reflect a growing international consensus around the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework and Guiding Principles for implementation that have also been incorporated into other recent standards developments, alignments, and revisions including the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the UN Global Compact, the International Council on Mining & Metals, and ISO 26000, among others. For more on the latest developments in the Framework and Guiding Principles, see our blog series on Human Rights and the Private Sector.
The updates to the Sustainability Policy and Performance Standards mean that the bar has been raised for other international financial institutions to identify, consider, and address the human rights, social, and environmental impacts of their investments, especially in view of the Equator Principles Update Process that was launched last month. Since the revised IFC Standards do not go into effect until next year, it remains to be seen if and how they will translate into changes in oversight mechanisms, project monitoring, access to remedies, and actual reductions in negative impacts on communities.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Rong Chen, M.P.A. Candidate 2012, Economic Policy and Finance, Cornell University in preparing this blog entry.