Aug. 7, 2023
Making IAMs Accessible for All Communities
Civil society organizations play a crucial role in supporting communities throughout, and improving the accessibility of IAM complaint processes. Insights from preliminary research on this topic show the impact representation can have on the success of a complaint, and identify potential policy changes to make IAMs more accessible for communities.
Many development finance institutions (DFIs) have independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs) that provide a forum for communities affected by development projects to voice their grievances. These offices are premised on the idea that development must be accountable to local communities for its negative consequences. Yet these processes are often so legalistic, complicated, and burdensome that communities struggle to gain entry to the process, let alone make it to something that looks like remedy.
Preliminary research conducted by Stanford students for Accountability Counsel found that complaints that are supported by civil society organizations (CSOs) end up with more positive outcomes than those without CSO support. The data provides quantitative backing to what many affected communities have been saying: without help, the IAM process would have felt impossible. The good news is that CSOs seem to be succeeding at providing that help to affected communities and having positive, tangible impacts on case outcomes. On the other hand, it is concerning that IAM processes are so difficult to navigate that communities may only be able to make it through with the help of CSOs.
The data points us towards a two-pronged goal for reimagining a more accessible accountability process: (1) IAMs must adopt policies and practices that lower barriers of entry and reduce the burden of navigating multi-year complaints for all communities; and (2) IAMs must continue to support and uplift communities’ right to representation and support from CSOs.
What does the data show
The research conducted by Stanford students aimed to understand the impact of CSO support at each stage of the IAM complaint process, and determine how IAMs measure up when it comes to accessibility for communities. Out of all complaints registered on the Console database, the data was narrowed down to 681 closed cases from IAMs at multilateral development banks, where there was adequate information to determine whether complainant communities were supported by CSOs.
Some cases were supported by local CSOs (LCSOs), some were supported by international CSOs (ICSOs), while others were supported by both local and international CSOs. For purposes of the analysis, cases were only categorized as CSO-supported if there was evidence that local or international CSOs provided substantial support throughout the complaint process – temporary consultation on specialized questions did not count.
The data showed that cases with CSO support had higher success rates at all stages of the IAM process compared to cases without CSO support. While the degree to which CSO support impacts case outcomes varies somewhat between mechanisms, no mechanism bucks the trend of favoring CSO-supported cases. The student research also showed that local and international CSOs have different and complementary strengths in responding to the needs of affected communities. Exploring these differences is beyond the scope of this article, but is a fruitful topic for a future discussion.
As can be seen, for complaints that have no CSO support, only 30.79% of complaints are making it past the eligibility stage, and only 26.14% are making it to dispute resolution (DR) or compliance review (CR)–rates that are painfully low. This data shows accountability channels are not working as well as they should be for communities filing cases on their own. The broader lesson we can draw from this data is that support from CSOs has made a measurable difference–and that IAMs (and DFIs) need to do more to meet affected communities where they are, reduce barriers to access and engagement, and center the complaint process around communities’ needs and capacities.
Below, we discuss how CSOs affect the progress of complaints through the case process. Our hope is that by understanding the strengths of CSOs and elucidating the common points where communities without support tend to suffer worse outcomes, we can identify specific policy interventions to make the process more accessible.
The Added Value of CSO Involvement
To go deeper into the data, the students conducted seven case studies of complaints that made it through the final stage of an IAM process. They also profiled five of the CSOs most frequently involved in complaint filings, to understand the resources and expertise they offer, and their priorities in supporting complainant communities. This qualitative analysis focused on the specific ways that CSOs provided support to communities throughout the complaint process.
The data suggests that CSOs have the most impact in three key areas: drafting the complaint, coordinating and mobilizing affected communities, and connecting communities to additional resources.
Analysis of the seven case studies showed that CSOs provide both substantive and stylistic assistance to help package the complaint in a form that the IAM expects and is likely to engage with. On a substantive level, CSOs can draw on a comprehensive understanding of IAMs and bank policies to help communities pinpoint the main issues that are connected to specific environmental and social safeguards that the project may have violated. Stylistically, CSOs can present community experiences in formal or legalistic language and according to any language preferences or requirements.1 By knowing what IAMs are looking for in a complaint, CSOs contribute to a cohesive and comprehensive complaint that covers all relevant issues and provides important context for IAMs.
Coordination, mobilization, and capacity-building of communities
After complaints are accepted, CSOs can help community members remain organized by helping to coordinate and prepare for key meetings, and providing access to crucial resources communities may otherwise lack. Some examples include CSO staff traveling to participate in negotiations, advising on technical project documents, and helping community representatives communicate with and mobilize the broader affected community about the IAM case process. Some IAMs, like the AfDB’s IRM2 and GCF’s IRM3, have recognized the heavy burden communities must bear–in effort, money, and time–and have begun offering critical financial support to eligible complainants. Complainants not receiving direct IAM support must often rely on civil society partners to keep complaint processes alive. In addition to material resources, CSOs also focus on capacity-building for communities by organizing trainings to help community members gain relevant skills such as mediation, negotiation skills and strategies, advocacy strategies, or an increased understanding of relevant substantive issues.
Long-term support through implementation monitoring
Additionally, for communities that make it through the IAM process to an outcome that looks like success on paper, the journey takes a toll. Communities can spend years on the dispute resolution or compliance review process and subsequent monitoring periods, which can be both empowering and exhausting. The final outcomes of those years, such as livelihood restoration agreements, environmental protection measures, and changes to the project or to bank policy, are incredibly important for communities. The IAM process is sometimes the only pathway to preventing harm or ensuring remedy, yet the implementation of remedial measures can’t always bridge the gap to restoring lost livelihoods. CSOs can provide vital support to communities through the monitoring period, including through media attention and advocacy to the banks, to amplify community voices and efforts and ensure commitments are kept.
Breaking down barriers
Changes Needed to Make IAMs Accessible
Looking at the common points where CSO engagement in an IAM process makes a difference, we can identify some policies that create barriers in the first place.4 Communities need help from CSOs in drafting complaints because IAMs require “credible” accounts of “material” or “substantial” harm, and legalistic strategies may require including numerous specific instances to prevent claims from being dropped during CR/DR. Additionally, communities need help from CSOs in coordinating community members throughout the process because it can be unfamiliar, overly legalistic, and involve travel, translation, and negotiation skills.
This process is also difficult for CSOs, some of which have expressed exhaustion in the face of long and at times intractable IAM processes. Accompanying communities through a long and unfamiliar process with unfair power dynamics, with no guarantee that things will improve on the ground, takes a toll on communities and supporting organizations.
Making the IAM process more accessible to communities without CSO support will make the process more accessible for all communities, even those with CSO support. Ideally, communities wouldn’t need the support of CSOs to submit complaints and participate in DR or CR. However, as long as there are barriers like language, finances, technology, and others limiting community involvement in accountability mechanisms, communities need all the support they can get in defending their rights when development goes wrong. This means providing full-bodied support for communities working with CSOs on their complaints, as well as restructuring IAM policies to ensure every project-affected community can access and navigate the path to remedy. In other words, it is crucial for IAMs to remove barriers to entry, without eroding communities’ right to representation.
Policy interventions to reduce/remove eligibility barriers. Eligibility requirements must be reimagined to allow affected communities a real chance to raise their concerns without setting an impossibly formal or legalistic standard. Otherwise, IAMs fail to offer all communities a meaningful and dignified path towards accountability.
Policy interventions to reduce/remove dispute resolution and compliance review barriers. Throughout the DR and CR processes, policies and practices at IAMs place high demands on communities, including on their time, energy, money, and other resources. Inherent power dynamics also threaten to unfairly skew both the process and its outcome. Communities frequently face risks of retaliation for raising concerns in the first place, without adequate protection from IAMs.
While policies have power to make change at the structural level, IAMs must simultaneously seek to embody the spirit behind these policy changes. The IAM process exists for affected communities. As such, IAMs need to meet communities where they are, in a spirit of inclusivity and empowerment. IAMS should see themselves as a genuine hand extended to affected communities to guide them and support them throughout a process that wouldn’t even be necessary were it not for failures in development projects.
Towards accessibility for all communities
Enshrining Communities’ Right to Representation
Complainants have the right to representation of their choice in an IAM process, and making the IAM process more accessible for all communities does not mean excluding CSOs that are advising or representing communities. Although ideally, the IAM process would not require communities to have support from advisers, barriers like language, accessibility, finances, and technology exist, and some community members may choose to partner with CSOs to share the burden and overcome these obstacles. IAMs must respect this choice. Even beyond the impacts that CSO involvement can have on a complaint, connecting with civil society can provide affected communities with access to new resources, capacity-building, trainings, networks of like-minded communities and organizations, and other valuable resources that empower and sustain them.
Accountability mechanisms can further strengthen their commitment to accessibility by respecting the role that CSOs play in the complaint process. Some IAM policies currently limit communities to choosing only national or local organizations for representation, with international CSOs allowed only in exceptional circumstances. In practice, some IAMs do not respect communities’ selection of representatives, cutting them out of key discussions and steps of the case process. IAMs should allow communities the full right to representation of their choice and should honor that choice throughout each step of the case.
Preliminary research data shows that communities struggle to navigate the IAM complaint process alone, while the support of local and international CSOs measurably improves case outcomes. In particular, the data suggests that CSOs provide valuable support in drafting the complaint, coordinating and mobilizing the community, and connecting communities to additional resources. If these kinds of interventions by CSOs during the case process have such a demonstrable impact on the case outcomes, are IAMs actually providing an adequately accessible path to redress for communities on their own? And, knowing how important CSO engagement is, what can IAMs do better to respect community complainants’ decision to involve CSOs in the case process?
Reimagining a more accessible accountability process can point us towards two complementary goals: (1) IAMs must adopt policies and practices that lower barriers of entry and reduce the burden of navigating multi-year complaints for all communities; and (2) IAMs must continue to support and uplift communities’ right to representation and support from CSOs. These goals will require structural and cultural changes to commit IAMs to their mission of meeting communities where they are to provide a path to redress. By adopting some of the policies discussed here, IAMs can craft an accountability process that is easier for communities to understand, participate in, and benefit from. By honoring communities’ right to representation and uplifting the collaborative role CSOs play in the process, IAMs can ensure that communities continue to benefit from their support.
1 While some DFIs accept complaints in any language, others note a preference for English or official national languages of member countries.
2 “The IRM shall bear all reasonable costs associated with conducting Problem-Solving, Compliance Review and monitoring as well as ensuring meaningful participation of Complainants, witnesses and stakeholders in Problem-Solving, Compliance Review or monitoring. For purposes of the cost provisions, ‘stakeholders’ refers to a person, group of persons or community who is/are or may be directly affected by the implementation or outcome of an AfDB-funded project under consideration in a Complaint, and who is participating or has participated in Problem-Solving, Compliance Review or monitoring in some manner other than as the complainant.” AfDB IRM Operating Rules and Procedures, at par. 101 (July 2021).
3“The IRM shall bear the costs of conducting problem solving, compliance review and monitoring as well as the costs of ensuring the meaningful participation of complainants, witnesses and stakeholders in problem solving, compliance review or monitoring.” GCF Procedures and Guidelines of the Independent Redress Mechanism, at par. 91 (July 2021).
4 Many of the policy suggestions discussed herein can also be found in the Good Policy Paper, published in 2021.
5 “While eight out of 12 active IAMs explicitly accept complaints filed in any language, the other four (representing 42% of all complaints filed in the MENA) do not.” Accountability Counsel, Our Last and Only Resort, at p. 19 (Sept. 2022).
6 Mediators have a role in mitigating power imbalance. L Almoayed, How Should IAMs Choose Mediators?, Accountability Console, November 2022.