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Interview with Susan Park

The new Science and Communication officer of the International Project Office, Jane Butler had the opportunity to interview Prof. Susan Park of The Sydney Environmental Institute to learn about her latest book, “Environmental Recourse of Multilateral Development Banks.” The book is a recent edition of the Earth System Governance Cambridge Elements Series. The Elements Series’ format is that of a compact book, an attractive option for Earth System Governance Fellows who wish to present a concise, policy-relevant message in around 100 pages. Park also mentions that another positive aspect of the series is the audience; the earth system governance community recognizes that what happens at the local level has global implications. Read more about the series here.


Hydroelectric Dam, Jamshoro, Pakistan (Source: Pexels)

A grievance mechanism is a process through which individuals or communities can file a complaint if negatively affected by a project funded by development finance institutions. Park’s book takes a human-centric approach to how people invoke their environmental rights through such mechanisms. We talked about what happens in practice with these claims, the trouble with modernist approaches to development, and what inspires her work.

What spurred you to focus on this particular inquiry?

I wanted to know if grievance mechanisms provide environmental justice for those who used them. Multinational corporations, labour associations, and trade associations all have some kind of grievance mechanisms to hold themselves to account. Multilateral development banks are public finance institutions, so they have the unique public mandate to provide information on what they are doing. By looking at this subset of public data of claims made against the multilateral development banks, I could push to see what is actually being done with grievance mechanisms.

And what did you find?

What was interesting is that multilateral development banks like the World Bank really avoid discussions on human rights. They don’t want to be held to human rights treaties or multilateral environmental agreements. They say rather that such matters are the business of the member states.

At the beginning of my research, people said to me, ‘You’re not really speaking the language of the environmental and social standards that are best practice,’ and I said, ‘I’m doing that on purpose!’ Because the issue is that nobody is really talking about people’s rights and the rights of nature. I’m coming from an almost environmental approach to international standards and in doing so, trying to push these standards.

International organizations are supposedly there to make things better. The question is – better for who? If you follow the documentation, it sort of stops. It’s not known what actually happened to people who make claims using these mechanisms.

How are you advancing existing knowledge in this area? 

This is completely new research. There are fantastic scholars working in international law for international organizations, which is important. The political side is a niche area in which I’m carving out new research. One way is to bring environmental rights into the discussion in order to see what grievance mechanisms can achieve for people. It is really new to put people at the forefront of the subject of grievance mechanisms.

You mentioned that while this topic may seem niche, it really gets to the heart of how we could resolve or pre-empt environmental conflicts which are on the rise. Could you expand a little bit on that?

As far as I can see, with more intent to increase investment through development financial institutions, we have to have development that coexists with the communities and ecosystems. We are using more resources. Consumption is just not slowing down. With this need for extraction, conflict around these grievances is only going to increase. 

The focus on multilateral development banks is to alleviate poverty. They seek to help people, but it’s a very modernist approach to development and based on a standard global conceptualization of progress. Development should allow people to retain their deep cultural and spiritual link to their environment. Multilateral development banks are very much so linked to economics, but where does nature fit into this? 

The Earth System Governance Project has a Science Plan which is organized around five research lenses and four contextual conditions. How does this book intersect with it?

Inequality is baked into these mechanisms. One of the key issues for vulnerable communities is actually knowing grievance mechanisms exist. Diversity is incredibly important for justice. The mechanisms, therefore, need to function outside the privilege of access to the internet, everyone having an email address and speaking English, for example. Justice and Allocation is a relevant research lens to the question of who is using what resources for whom and who benefits. What I like about the Science Plan is that it cross sects so many different areas, and your research can fit across more than one. For me, that is the strength of it.

Who are some of your influences at the moment? 

I’m influenced by my colleagues at the Sydney Environment Institute, including Danielle Celermajer and David Schlosberg on multi-species justice. It reminds me that we don’t need to simply focus on the human, but also on the ‘non-human’ in our research.

Find more about  “Environmental Recourse of Multilateral Development Banks” by Prof. Susan Park here. 


Thank you for your time, Susan!

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