International Project Finance: Information & Communications Technology to Create Social and Environmental Accountability

Project finance is a method of nonrecourse financing that “is not primarily dependent on the credit support of the [project] sponsors or the value of the physical assets involved,” but rather depends upon the expected “performance of the project itself.” [1] This financing technique is often utilized to support large infrastructural projects in which the borrower is a company formed specifically for the creation of the infrastructure facility and the lender is repaid primarily from the cash flow and value of the facility itself. [2] The major lenders are international financial institutions (“IFIs”), such as the World Bank or large private commercial banks. [3] Due to the public outcry of third parties against the negative impact of select global project finance projects, [4] social and environmental standards have transpired in the project finance industry, changing the way most major IFIs approach project finance. [5] Notably, IFIs have created a set of social and environmental standards, called the Equator Principles (“Principles”), by which the projects they fund must be governed. [6] These voluntary guidelines adopted by private commercial banks ensure sustainable social and environmental practices as a condition to obtaining funding for project finance deals. [7] Consequently, mitigating social and environmental impacts are an important aspect of sponsor and lender due diligence. Within the history of international project finance, a number of famous projects, such as the dam projects along the Narmada River in India and the Cochabamba water project in Bolivia, have run into social and environmental problems preventing them from going forth. Nevertheless, due to the voluntary nature of the Principles and/or general noncompliance among stakeholders trying to maximize profit and avoid contract obligations, [8] the Principles are not always followed despite the heightened awareness of these issues. [9] Incorporating greater information & communications technology is one way to create social and environmental accountability in international project finance.

Modern advances in information & communications technology have increased pressure on financiers to perform ongoing monitoring of their projects through easily accessible global media coverage. Even as late as the early 1990s, projects were mainly monitored by NGOs of the developed world. These NGOs would protest if they detected any social or environmental violations. In the 1990s, with assistance from international NGOs, local NGOs were developed to allow for groups in each respective country to monitor projects locally. Since today’s Internet and telecommunication abilities nearly instantaneously transmit social and environmental violations worldwide, lenders and sponsors are incentivized to comply with social and environmental standards in order to avoid the bad publicity and exposure. [10]

Repeated criticism for years by international NGOs for Exim’s role in financing the ‘Three Gorges Dam’ demonstrated the effectiveness of poor publicity. Pressure for ECA social and environmental standards arose “as a result of actual or proposed ECA funding of large potentially environmentally harmful projects as the Three Gorges Dam in China….” [11] Facilitating NGO reporting through creating a global platform to report violations may encourage financier complicity with higher standards.

Promoting transparency and access to information at all levels is critical. For example, Chinese financiers should publish more detailed data regarding the lenders’ overall financing portfolios, especially highlighting transactions in environmentally and socially sensitive projects or areas. Such documentation should also go beyond the Global Reporting Initiative format and publish in full the existing guidelines and performance standards, information on borrowers’ environmental compliance records, and information regarding loans to borrowers which experience major environmental accidents. Providing transparent documentation promotes compliance and facilitates public monitoring of best practice implementation.

Thus, to address the environmental and social risks faced within project finance, both borrowers and lenders should take note of social and environmental concerns. Financial institutions, for example, are wise to proactively adhere to established environmental and social guidelines in project financing by implementing international protocols such as the Equator Principles. By increasing the number of mechanisms in play, adherence would encourage lender and borrower to recognize and protect indigenous people’s rights via compliance with social and environmental principles, in turn promoting sustainable investments.

[1] See Jay Facciolo, Project Finance by Clifford Chance, 11 B.U. Int’l L.J. 165, 168 (1993).

[2] See Equator Principles, The “Equator Principles”: A Financial Industry Benchmark for Determining, Assessing, and Managing Social and Environmental Risk in Project Financing (2006), available at [hereinafter The Equator Principles]; see generally Scott L. Hoffman, The Law and Business of International Project Finance (2008).

[3] David B. Hunter, Civil Society Networks and the Development of Environmental Standards at International Financial Institutions, 8 Chi. J. Int’l L. 437, 437-51 (2008) (listing sources of international project finance capital).

[4] See Kirk Herbertson & David Hunter, Emerging Standards for Sustainable Finance of the Energy Sector, 7 Sustainable Dev. L. & Pol’y 4, 5 (2007); see also Robert F. Lawrence & William L. Thomas, The Equator Principles and Project Finance: Sustainability in Practice?, Nat. Resources & Env’t, Fall 2004, at 20 (2006).

[5] See Paul Watchman, Banks, Business and Human Rights, 2 Butterworths J. Int’l Banking & Fin. L. 46, 46 (2006); see also Kevin Godier, The Changing View of Governance, in Sustainable Investment 24 (2004); About the Equator Principles, The Equator Principles (last visited Jan. 3, 2014); see also Herbertson & Hunter, supra note 4, at 5; see also Hunter, supra note 3, at 437-51.

[6] See About the Equator Principles, supra note 5; see also Andrew Hardenbrook, The Equator Principles: The Private Financial Sector’s Attempt at Environmental Responsibility, 40 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 197, 200-01 (2007).

[7] See id.

[8] See, e.g., Lawrence & Thomas, supra note 4, at 22; see also Alan Clendenning, Brazil’s Amazon Building Boom Draws Protests, MSNBC, May 23, 2008,

[9] See Hardenbrook, supra note 6, at 207-10 (describing various criticisms of the Principles); see, e.g., Nick Mathiason, Banks Attacked for Failures to Meet Equator Principles on Environment 38 (2010).

[10] See IISD, The rise and role of NGOs in sustainable development (2013), available at (last visited Jan. 3, 2014); see also Sheila Kinkade & Katrin Verclas, Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs 8-9 (2008), available at[2].pdf (last visited Jan. 3, 2014).

[11] See Hunter, supra note 3, at 446; see also U.S. Gov’t Accounting Office, supra note 42, at 1, 8.

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