July 9, 2024

Reaching beyond outreach workshops

Spreading the word about independent accountability mechanisms

IAMs outreach workshop

Emily Horgan (left), Senior Specialist, Communications and Outreach, Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) and John Mwebe (right), Program Coordinator, Uganda, International Accountability Project. Photos courtesy of Emily Horgan and John Mwebe. 

By Jennine Meyer

Nine independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs) recently hosted an outreach workshop for civil society organizations (CSOs) in seven countries in the Eastern Africa region. The two-day gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, was attended in person and online by twenty staff from nine IAMs—a record-breaking outreach initiative.

For all their efforts, IAMs struggle to inform communities affected by the projects of international financial institutions about the avenues for redress that they offer. Some CSOs believe the number of cases filed each year continues to be very low relative to the number of projects funded. 

Outreach workshops are among the most effective ways for IAMs to spread the word, but partnerships with CSOs are critical: they serve as bridges to communities, offering the advice and technical capacity that communities often require to file complaints. CSOs often advise communities whether to file complaints and which function, compliance or dispute resolution, would be best for their situation. 

But what is the value of an outreach workshop? We know that they convey information and build relationships. But then what? Is there a relationship between the number of outreach workshops convened and the number of complaints filed? What can IAMs expect to achieve through these workshops and how are they actually serving CSOs and communities? Accountability Matters asked two individuals who participated in the workshop—one from a CSO and another from an IAM—for their views.


John Mwebe, Program Coordinator, Uganda, International Accountability Project

John Mwebe
John Mwebe, Program Coordinator, Uganda, International Accountability Project. Photo courtesy of John Mwebe.

What were the most and least valuable aspects of the workshop in Kenya?

The most valuable aspect was entrenching the understanding that an IAM is a non-judicial mechanism—it’s a standalone mechanism and doesn’t work within the banks. It’s an alternative to judicial mechanisms where we don’t really have too much of a say. It was valuable to know that an IAM is a non-judicial mechanism, that it’s very accessible, and that people can go there and not feel like it’s adversarial, like a legal proceeding would be. That it’s a mechanism where you can go and be heard, and your issues with the project implementers can be addressed, especially through an institution with a bit of leverage over them. 

The least valuable aspect is knowing that even with a Management Action Plan, and all of the necessary voices, IAMs also have limits in dealing with the dictatorial governments that we have in the South. I appreciate that but I wish at times that they could do more than make recommendations. 


What did you learn about these IAMs that you didn’t know before?

I had never given thought to who actually drafts the Management Action Plan—that an investigation report goes back to the directors, the directors send it to management, and management, working with technical persons, comes up with a Management Action Plan. 

I learned something new, but I have my reservations, because in my work, I’ve interacted with the management of different banks. I’ve often seen times where the Management Action Plan says, “Yes, we acknowledge the findings, but we’ve also already had measures along these lines.” And you’re thinking, no, what you’re calling measures are stopgap measures. You’re not really up to the task. You are only defending the fact that you don’t need a project to be suspended. 

Kenya outreach 2024
Participants of the recent outreach workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: World Bank Accountability Mechanism.


How do you think these types of workshops can better serve the needs of CSOs and communities? 

Wherever you have a complaint, it would work best if the IAM team could take a day to take the community and those supporting it through a training on how the IAM works. I notice that the team comes in and asks questions, it does the preliminary investigations and compiles its report—it does everything. But you are only asking people questions and they are giving you responses. But often, in complaint settings, people do not know the limits of the IAM. You spend all of that time and energy flying to Uganda or Venezuela where there is a complaint. Start with at least a day in that community to train them about an IAM—what they do—so that they can follow the process. 

Apart from physical meetings, a bit of awareness building about topics like a Management Action Plan through a webinar could be useful. So when a physical meeting comes up, a couple of these issues have already been answered. 


How can CSOs collaborate with IAMs to improve awareness of how they work? 

Work with the CSOs all the way from the beginning of the complaint. When a team flies into the country, work with civil society, help them understand that we are talking about problem solving or compliance. At every point, work with the CSOs. 

It’s funny that you fly into a country like Angola with your team. You pick the information. The community will not ask you any details. It will still ask the CSO the details of what you did. So, if the CSO is not strong enough to keep asking you questions, there’s always that gap between the team that has come in to support the process and the CSO. Yet when you leave, at every point, the people keep asking the CSOs. So work with them the entire journey. Let them know why you’re asking for particular information. Be very candid about the things you will not do because some teams come in and say, “Let’s see what we can do.” But if you know you’re not really going to do something about a particular issue, be candid about it. For me, that is the first point of entry. In the end, you’re going to have a very empowered civil society space that is already going to spread your gospel and say, “Wait a minute. The IAM can do this. It can’t do this.” By the time you get to the ground, it will be easier to do your work, because then civil society is working with you. 

Keep providing information in webinars. Keep providing information about IAMs. Keep engaging civil society in what’s new within your setting. If there are policies that are being revised, let them know. Ask them questions about what they think can be done differently. As civil society, we are very active in these spaces, and we can provide information, but that also makes us feel like partners. 

The workshop we did in Kenya was excellent because it made us feel, “Wow. The banks—the IAMs—value the work that we do.” So, if you keep in touch, and where you’ve had a case, you also do a bit of documenting and put the documentation out there, these things go a long way in making civil society believe they are actually partners in this. 


Emily Horgan, Senior Specialist, Communications and Outreach, Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO)

Emily Horgan
Emily Horgan, Senior Specialist, Communications and Outreach, Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO). Photo courtesy of Emily Horgan.

How do you think outreach by IAMs has changed over the years?

We started doing outreach because the [IFC/MIGA] board raised it with us. They asked, “How do you make sure people know about CAO?” We didn’t have a systematic approach. So when I was hired by CAO, it was primarily to start an outreach program. 

There’s always been some cooperation between the accountability mechanisms. It can be quite resource intensive to do outreach on your own, and especially in the early days before virtual meetings were possible. You were either flying people into a location for a regional workshop or you were flying into a location where you could gather local organizations for a meeting. Partnering with other accountability mechanisms made sense, because then you could pool your resources and efforts—take turns to lead the organization of a workshop. That’s a model we’ve continued to use quite well. It’s not without its challenges, because different mechanisms have different strategies and priorities, the level of stakeholder knowledge about them may vary, they have different track records and caseloads. They may also have different messaging. When you partner in an outreach effort, there are some tradeoffs. 

We’ve also done targeted outreach alone to focus just on CAO’s work. You can have a very focused conversation in this way as one mechanism. But for the participants, you are just one slice of information about available options for grievance redress. You’re taking up their time, and people are busy. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much more useful for participants to attend an event that gives them access to multiple institutions and allows them to see the whole landscape of access to recourse that exists through different mechanisms. However, joint workshops are not without their challenges. We’ve got to keep the information accessible and not overload people. 

As a mechanism, if you have a specific region or country where you feel you need to do more targeted outreach, you should be proactive at doing it. That might require investing the time and resources to reach organizations where the portfolio [of the international financial institution] is quite big. CAO piloted an approach at the country level a few years ago where we invited country office staff to participate. The country office staff would talk about IFC’s role in the country and give an overview of the environmental and social standards, and then we would talk about the mechanism. We did this in several countries in Africa, and it worked well, because people appreciated direct engagement with the staff of the country office—who they are, what projects they finance in-country, and how does this whole accountability mechanism picture fit into that? 

Emily Horgan at outreach
Emily Horgan (left) engaging in discussion during an outreach workshop. Photo courtesy of Emily Horgan.


What expectations should we have for these workshops?

We should keep our expectations in check. The purpose of conducting outreach is not to come away with 10 complaints, for example. Our institutions are sometimes nervous about us as accountability mechanisms doing outreach. There was always a concern that it was going to open the floodgates, that we are out there fishing for complaints. But that is just not how things are in reality. People have very little information about projects, and very little understanding about the institutions themselves. 

The information about the accountability mechanisms is new to most participants. And sometimes they have questions—is using one of these mechanisms going to be effective? The main objective is sharing basic information and building some understanding about who we are, and maybe building some trust. 

What our institutions probably don’t know is that when we’re doing outreach, we’re not necessarily seen as independent complaint mechanisms, but just as representatives of our development institutions. If people have any misgivings or concerns about our institutions, we’re on the frontline of that when conducting outreach. So, you might be starting off in a very low-trust environment in an outreach workshop. 

If we come away [from the workshops] and people know that multilaterals and bilaterals have accountability mechanisms that are set up to address complaints from project-affected communities, and they know where to find that information, I would say that we have achieved one of our goals to simply raise awareness. However, we know there are also barriers to accessing our mechanisms, including the time and resources needed for people to engage in an IAM process or retaliation concerns they may experience. We also have to manage expectations about what our mechanisms can achieve and the challenges in delivering remedy to complainants given the amount of complexity in the work that we do.


These workshops tend to generate a lot of energy while they’re happening. How do we keep the momentum going?

That question is the hard one. You can have some really good energy in a workshop—everyone’s engaged, plugged in. Then there’s a lot of discussion about what next, how do we stay connected? 

Today, it’s much easier with social media, mailing lists, and digital newsletters for people to stay connected with our work. But some of our mechanisms have a mandate that covers dozens of countries around the world, and we’re doing such limited outreach in any one year. There’s a limit to what we achieve in terms of follow up after a workshop. We aim to stay connected via our mailing lists, we ask people to follow our work online. We encourage them to contact us if they have any questions. And if there are specific issues that come up in a workshop, or in any outreach engagement, where people raise projects of concern, we’ve got to be very proactive about following up with those individuals and find out how we can help them. 

To get a good output from an outreach effort, you need to have a good input.  It is not about throwing the net as wide as possible. It’s more about quality than quantity.  How do you reach people for whom the information is most relevant and who can use it in their day-to-day work? We have benefited greatly from our civil society partners working with us in the regions to identify environmental and social justice actors at the national level who can benefit from learning about the accountability mechanisms.  You don’t need 100 people. If you’ve got 25 people in a workshop, and it’s relevant for their work, you’re creating the space for a productive conversation. 



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