A senior dispute resolution officer reflects on the challenges—and rewards—of bringing parties to the table to collaboratively solve problems
By Jennine Meyer
Scott Adams officially joined the Accountability Mechanism (AM) as a Senior Dispute Resolution Officer late last year. Until then, he had been “on loan” from the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), working on a special assignment to oversee the AM’s first Dispute Resolution cases. Adams, a lawyer by training, is a well-known face in the international accountability community. With nearly 30 years of experience, he continues to bring optimism to a line of work that can be contentious. When talking to Accountability Matters for this interview, he drew on his experiences with communities in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Georgia, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, to offer insights on how dispute resolution can contribute to accountability. “A lot of things can be done without a mediator,” he said. “Obviously, people negotiate every day without third parties. It becomes harder when there is a long-term conflict in which things have escalated. This is when a neutral third party can be particularly helpful.” This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you explain dispute resolution to someone who knows nothing about it?
I actually have to do this from time to time with friends and family.
In the context of the World Bank Accountability Mechanism, voluntary dispute resolution is offered with regard to eligible complaints from communities that are affected by World Bank development projects. This means that if the community and the government that is implementing the project agree, we can offer mediation to help them find mutually acceptable solutions to the issues in the complaint. These are all environmental and social of issues— for example, it could be project impacts on local water supply, resettlement or land acquisition, impacts on livelihoods, impacts on workers and working conditions, and so on. During the dispute resolution process, we facilitate the discussion. We don’t impose solutions or recommendations. We try to help them find mutual agreement.
At the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation/Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (IFC/MIGA), you focused on dispute resolution for private sector cases. At the World Bank, you are focused on public sector cases. Are there major differences?
Indeed there are.
I have found that on the client side, government clients are much more complicated than private sector clients. With a private company, you typically have a well-defined hierarchy—who is part of the company and what they do in their jobs and who isn’t.
A government is obviously a big entity, and in most countries, the ministry of finance is the main one dealing with the finance part of agreements with the World Bank. But the implementing agency—and there might be more than one—will depend on the project. If it is a hydro project, it could be the ministry of energy. If it is a road, it might be a ministry of transport. On top of that, you may have other government stakeholders with an interest or regulatory role. If you are building a new road, the ministry of environment might also be involved even if they aren’t the direct implementer. The bottom line is that it is a lot more complicated to figure out who is who and what their interests are. We then need to tread very carefully to respect the sovereignty of governments and ensure that we don’t inadvertently make a political blunder or faux pas.
In the private sector, no matter what else is going on, companies are in business to make money. You know that at least you have that interest in common among almost all for-profit companies, whereas governments can make decisions for a lot of different reasons, whether mission-driven, political, changes in the administration, or even individual egos.
What is the biggest misconception about dispute resolution?
Two things come to mind.
The first usually comes into play when we are introduced to new parties. It is the assumption that we are there to make a decision—to determine right and wrong or make findings of fact, which we don’t. We are impartial and neutral. We facilitate the negotiation discussions to help them reach an agreement. That is probably the biggest misconception—people think that we are a court, judge, arbitrator, or expert who has come to tell them what to do.
A second misconception is about what mediators actually do. There is no magic. Conflict resolution and negotiation theory and research backs up what we do. There are skills and techniques you learn in mediation training. It is also both an art and a science—not just a prescribed process. Intuition and creativity are equally important. Equally competent mediators may take different strategies at different moments.
What was the most challenging moment that you faced during a dispute resolution case?
This is a hard question. There are so many.
In one case, we were meeting with affected fisherfolk. A large mob of at least 100 people started to form on the beach. This group had internal conflicts with each other. They were each trying to tell us their side of the story. This all had to be done through translation. The conversation was heated. I was very concerned about it getting violent and getting our team out safely, as well as not being the indirect cause of the crowd hurting each other. We were trying to listen, respond, and let everyone know that we wanted to hear from both sides while also being mindful that this could turn violent at any moment.
In another case, we were in the middle of a joint mediation session and journalists burst into the room and demanded that they be allowed to film a project of public interest. I had to politely ask them to leave. Fortunately, there was a flip chart with ground rules right next to me that included the importance of confidentiality. I pointed to that. They argued for freedom of press. We left it to the parties to decide. The parties said, “It’s fine! Let them stay. We’ve got nothing to hide.” People behave very differently in front of TV cameras. We had to let the train wreck happen. Not surprisingly, things went off the rails.
Aside from anecdotal examples, it is important to note that there are some common challenges we often encounter across cases such as power imbalances, potential threats or reprisals against participants in the process, and disagreements or conflict among affected community members.
Why do you do your job? What motivates you?
It’s a little cliché, but I feel fortunate that I have a job where I can make a difference. I don’t make a difference every day or in every case, but when I do, there is a wow factor.
We are here to serve the affected communities and the Bank’s partners and clients. It’s really good colleagues and peers that keep you going on tough days.
In your experience, what motivates communities to enter into a dispute resolution process?
What motivates communities to file a complaint in general, not specific to compliance or dispute resolution—in my experience, it’s a last resort. People have tried domestic courts, protesting, writing letters, engaging directly with the project implementer, media campaigns, or whatever else. Either this hasn’t worked, or they don’t feel safe in making a complaint. They may also lack the resources to try these things. It is often an act of desperation because they don’t know where else to turn and think the World Bank can help.
For dispute resolution specifically, what is often appealing to both sides is that it is participatory and that they will maintain some control. No one will force them into doing anything. They have agency and voice, which is very appealing. Many also like the confidentiality aspect.
Why is independence so critical to dispute resolution?
We often get questions about why Bank Management can’t do this work. There are many cases in which people call the local World Bank office and express their concerns. The issue is then sorted out. We encourage that.
But there are cases in which an independent, neutral body can be helpful. We need independence for the same reasons that our IAM colleagues working in compliance, like the Inspection Panel, do. We need to be able to make professional judgments and decisions on our own, without the influence of World Bank Management.
The World Bank has an interest in defending itself, its financial stake in its projects, and its relationships with host governments. We need to be removed from that so that all parties can trust us as impartial and neutral.