Who Makes the Decisions

Source: News & Observer

One of the most common threads among the complaints filed with a bank’s accountability mechanisms is the lack of approval from the community that the project will impact. The consent and disclosure issue filter reveals nearly four hundred complaints filed concerning a lack consent from the impacted community. Hydroelectric dams, trade routes, and water sanitation projects are frequent examples of internationally financed projects that seek to improve the livelihoods and capacities of underdeveloped communities, yet often fail to consider their stated needs.

The difference between the actual and the named stakeholders in many of these projects elucidates just how easy it was for them to miss their mark. While a massive infrastructure project so obviously impacts the surrounding communities, it isn’t often that their approval is sought before the project begins. To a large extent, stakeholders are considered from a distant, corporate perspective, only truly including those that are financing or being financed.

In Durham, we’ve seen how frustrating and damaging a lack of inclusion in project stakeholders can be when we saw the light-rail project shut down late 2019. Despite overwhelming community support for the rail project connecting UNC to Duke to NC Central, Duke retracted their commitment, inciting a collapse of the project altogether.

Two sides of the same coin demonstrate why exclusion in the project stakeholders creates disparaging impacts on the most vulnerable members of the community. In Durham our lack of public transportation puts strain on the ability of workers to commute cost effectively around the Durham-Chapel Hill area. Around the globe, infrastructure projects seeking to alleviate those same issues, yet without the consent or the community, create physical and economic barriers that render the project useless, and actually, harmful.

Time and time again, my internship with Accountability Counsel has demonstrated the importance of taking a community-based approach to addressing international harms, but how does that apply to my experience this Summer concerning Duke?

The most obvious pressing issue is the impact of the student body’s partial transition back to Durham in two weeks, despite the ever-expanding threat of covid-19. Even with the 30% reduction of on campus-living, students are slated to pour into campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially causing an upswing in infections. What does a community-based approach to that transition look like?  Is it just avoiding parties, wearing masks, and social distancing? Or does it require us to reconsider our moves to Durham altogether, for those of us who can? What is the Durham community asking of us and who are we letting speak on their behalf?

Justice-oriented project work at Duke has soared over the Summer in pre-established organizations, newly founded ones, and individuals themselves. As a recent member of the Executive Team for Duke Student Government, many of these projects have come across our table, providing valuable lessons in our understanding of stakeholders as Duke students – lessons that have only come more into focus as my internship has progressed towards the Fall.

As a facilitator of project work that doesn’t always impact me directly, it is imperative that I take a critical understanding to who is considered a stakeholder, especially when the impacts of student government’s work reach far beyond our physical campus. When and if the semester commences amidst a pandemic, my role as VP of the Services and Sustainability Committee requires that I take a novel approach to including all the various stakeholders in decisions, projects, and goals my committee sets.

With privilege and power, I must be cautious of how I use it, even if I believe I’m helping. Duke’s decision to terminate the light-rail and a development bank’s decision to fund a project may have seemingly valiant goals. Yet, a thorough look at the inclusion of the impacted community in the project’s construction will reveal boundless ways that project facilitators and organizers can improve upon their commitment to people in need. Such an understanding and application to Duke is paramount to building a better university and supporting an even better city.