World Bank halts Ugandan road schemes amid outcry over underage sex

In an unprecedented move, the World Bank has cancelled funding for a major road project in Uganda, while suspending two other transport schemes in the country, following local outcry over construction workers having sex with underage girls – causing nine pregnancies among pupils – and other social and environmental problems.

After complaints from communities last year, the bank cancelled funding for the project to build the 66km Kamwenge-to-Fort Portal Road (pictured) on 21 December 2015, citing serious allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by contractors.

The project, which was to have finished this year, was awarded to state-owned China Railway Seventh Group in July 2013. It was overseen by the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA).

Then on 8 January the World Bank said it would suspend funding to two further projects in Uganda, also overseen by the UNRA – the North Eastern Road-Corridor Asset Management Project and the Albertine Region Sustainable Development Project – pending a review.

Announcing the cancellation in December, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said all parties were to blame.

"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," he said,

"It is our obligation to properly supervise all investment projects to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected in our work. In this case, we did not."

The responsible contractors should take responsibility and be prosecuted– Patrick Kayemba, chair of the Civil Society Coalition on Transport-Uganda

People in the town of Bigodi, Uganda first raised concerns in December 2014 to the project’s Inspection Panel, but their complaint didn’t reach World Bank management.

Then in September 2015, the panel received another Request for Inspection (pdf) from representatives of the Bigodi and Nyabubale-Nkingo communities, raising similar concerns.

They attached hand written notes from 58 community members alleging underage sex, teenage pregnancy caused by road workers, a rise in prostitution, the spread of HIV/AIDS, school absenteeism, and fear of retaliation.

In all, nine girls from local primary schools had become pregnant in 2013 and 2014, the community representatives said.

Civil society groups in Uganda are now demanding answers from the Ugandan government.

"Government should issue a public statement informing citizens what exactly caused the suspension of these two projects," said Patrick Kayemba, chair of the Civil Society Coalition on Transport-Uganda (CISCOT), during a media briefing last week.

"The responsible contractors should also take responsibility and be prosecuted for their actions, especially those involved in sexually molesting underage students," he added.

The Kamwenge-to-Fort Portal Road was to have cost $265m, of which $190m was a World Bank loan, much of which will already have been disbursed.

In response to the cancellation, the UNRA said it had brought the communities’ concerns to the contractor. "Some of the issues have been resolved while others are still pending resolution," Allen C. Kagina, UNRA executive director, said in a statement.

Photograph: A section of the 66km Kamwenge-to-Fort Portal Road as it was on 10 December 2015 (UNRA)

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