Online event on accountability mechanisms reaches a global audience
Accountability in Development: Reaching out to civil society and communities in Asia and beyond
By Rabi Thapa
When local development projects funded by international finance institutions lead to actual or perceived harm, where do affected people or communities go to seek remedy or redress? The answer may seem straightforward if you are well-versed in the protocols of independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs). But what if potential complainants are completely unfamiliar with how to engage with formal processes that may vary across IAMs? What issues can one complain about, why might a complaint be found ineligible, and how does one ensure remedy where harm is established?
These were some of the questions posed at an online outreach event co-organized on July 25 by the IAMs of five development institutions, with the participation of 110 civil society representatives, community leaders, and other stakeholders from over 30 countries. The Massive Open Outreach Seminar (MOOS) on Development with Accountability, over the course of two engaging hours, guided participants through the origins of the IAMs; how to access the mechanisms; details on their compliance, dispute resolution, and advisory work; eligibility requirements and procedures for processing complaints; and how the mechanisms address retaliation risks and confidentiality requests. The session was enriched by an interactive and robust exchange between participants and presenters, the highlights of which are covered below.
Access & eligibility
The primary objective of the MOOS was to enhance awareness of and improve civil society and community access to IAM processes, as IAMs lack the resources to make field visits to the sites of all projects funded by the development banks that they are affiliated with. The online event was open to all, and aimed to reach a larger audience than normally possible through in-person events that have previously been held in single countries. Daniel Bradlow (United Nations Development Programme Social and Environmental Compliance Unit) acknowledged that civil society organizations (CSOs) often serve as bridge between IAMs and communities and can help to “spread the word”, particularly where complainants are illiterate or unaccustomed to formal processes. Nonetheless, IAMs try to make the process of submitting a complaint as simple as possible.
Shamas-ur-Rehman Toor (Project-affected People’s Mechanism, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) added: “Our mechanisms also require from the clients that the information about the project-level grievance redress mechanism and the IAM is made available to the project-affected people and communities in an accessible manner in local languages, and it’s a requirement in some of the policies to ensure that the word gets out there through meaningful consultation.”
In response to a question about why some complaints may be found ineligible, Toor clarified that “if basic eligibility requirements are not fulfilled then you know the complaint will be ineligible”. But Bradlow suggested that as far as possible, “the eligibility criteria are applied in as flexible a way as possible” so that harm can be alleviated for project-affected people. Patrick Flanagan (Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, International Finance Corporation/Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency) added, “We have these criteria for eligibility and we seek to ensure that the complaints meet those criteria. But we’ve also designed them in a way to make sure it’s a low bar for complainants to bring their complaints to us.”
To questions about how to quantify and define success, either through dispute resolution or compliance investigations, Bradlow responded, “What are the barriers to success, and how do you measure success?” Lowering the bar to eligibility is, in this sense, removing a preliminary barrier to success. Irum Ahsan (Compliance Review Panel, Asian Development Bank) explained, “Actual success is connecting people who are at the bottom of the chain with people at the top of the chain. The people who are the beneficiaries of the projects that our institutions fund are silent players at times … when they are impacted we provide this avenue for them to raise a voice. Our safeguards policies require certain standards to be met and when we achieve those standards completely, even through the complaints, that’s a success. But also, we think it’s a very big success when we see systemic changes in our institutions because of the complaints that we process and the recommendations that we make.”
Streamlining independent accountability mechanisms
A key concern for several participants was the possibility of streamlining IAM processes, because affected communities may find it challenging to understand the different protocols across IAMs. Toor responded, “The policies of IAMs are fairly well aligned, with some differences, as you would imagine. We really wish that in an ideal world there could be one policy and harmonized procedures, but we know that’s not going to be possible. Each of these policies goes through extensive public consultation before it is approved by the boards of our respective institutions. When it’s a policy requirement we’re going to live with the policy requirement, but of course there are policy reviews for all IAMs on a periodic basis and CSOs are invited to raise questions about access, eligibility, and remedy.” Bebet Gozun (Compliance Review Panel, Asian Development Bank) pointed out that in cases where communities are affected by projects that are financed by more than one development bank, “We coordinate very closely with the other IAMs and [in one case] we actually fielded the mission at the same time and also shared the same international expert. We share the information we get and some of the meetings that we held were done together.”
Responding to reprisals
Complainants often face risk of reprisals, so it is key that IAMs assess and respond to these risks adequately. Birgit Kuba (Inspection Panel, World Bank), noted that although the Panel has its guidelines and carries out its own research, “We rely a lot on the information we receive from complainants.” Bebet Gozun added, “IAMs take the issue of retaliation very seriously. We really have to believe the complainant because they are the ones who bear the brunt of everything. And then we also try to corroborate what complainants have told us about retaliation. Most of the mechanisms have risk assessment tools guiding them on how to assess the risk of retaliation and possible mitigation measures.” And while IAMs cannot physically protect complaints from risk of reprisals, Gozun explained, “The leverage of our host institutions plays a vital role.”
In terms of guaranteeing remedy in cases where investigations have found instances of harm, too, the leverage of host institutions is critical. IAMs themselves cannot ensure enforcement of management action plans drawn up to provide redress but, as Irum Ahsan noted, “Monitoring is supervised by the board … it is a big deal for the management and the staff of the bank to implement remedial actions.” That said, development banks cannot infringe on the sovereignty of states, so it is often up to government to support remedial measures.
As per the results of an online survey, 80% of participants rated the seminar as good or excellent, and many said they learned a lot about IAMs. When asked what improvements could be made to future online seminars, participants suggested holding them in different languages, including more information on dispute resolution cases, and targeting events at community members. The event was the first public MOOS of this kind that was jointly hosted by IAMs, and its availability online will allow them to reach a global audience. It is hoped that this will lead to the development of online training materials that communities and CSOs from around the world will be able to access. Similar events focused on different regions, both generic and themed, will be held in the future.
Development with Accountability: Massive Open Outreach Seminar with Independent Accountability Mechanisms was organized by the Accountability Mechanism (ADB); Accountability Mechanism (WB); Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (IFC/MIGA); Project-Affected People’s Mechanism (AIIB); and the Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (UNDP). The recording can be accessed here.