Question: What is an accountability office?

Answer: An accountability office (also called a complaint office, grievance mechanism, or independent accountability mechanism (IAM)) is a point of contact within an institution that receives complaints from people harmed by activities of that institution. Accountability offices have the authority to address these complaints through two primary functions: dispute resolution and/or compliance review (described below). Although accountability offices are frequently referred to as independent, most accountability offices are quasi-independent. They receive complaints directly from people harmed by the institution’s activities and operate independently of the institution, but then report to the institution’s board or president and rely on the institution for funding.

An example of an accountability office is the World Bank Group’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman. Note that the complaint offices we specialize in at Accountability Counsel are distinct from project-level grievance mechanisms (or operational level grievance mechanisms) that are sometimes created by an operating company or government agency at a local level.

Read more about our policy work to advance accountability offices to achieve best practice principles of independence, fairness, transparency, professionalism, accessibility, and effectiveness.

Question: Why use accountability offices instead of courts?

Answer: Barriers often prevent the communities most in need of a platform from raising a grievance, speaking out, and receiving redress, either through litigation, media campaigns, or even the ability to simply voice concerns and locally organize. Laws are often inadequate and protect corporations over people and the environment; some institutions are protected by immunity from lawsuits, even for their role in intentional abuses; and where legal protections do exist, barriers include the costs of litigation, lengthy delays, corruption in judicial systems, discrimination against vulnerable populations, language barriers, and lack of public interest attorneys.

Accountability Counsel strongly believes that all people should have access to a judicial proceeding, or court, to address corporate or institutional abuses. We are deeply supportive of corporate accountability advances and challenges to immunity of international organizations. But where litigation is not an option, and sometimes where it is an option, accountability offices can provide a pragmatic and viable way to raise a grievance and achieve a remedy. By using an accountability office, communities can avoid many of the barriers that formal judicial proceedings present. They can be efficient, flexible, and cost-effective means of addressing and resolving disputes. While accountability offices have limitations, and it is important to have realistic expectations for what can be achieved through a complaint process, our cases in Mexico and Mongolia demonstrate the potential power that these offices hold for communities.

Question: What types of complaints do these accountability offices receive?

Answer: Accountability offices primarily receive complaints concerning the environmental and social risks and impacts of projects receiving financing or support from the institution in which the office is housed. These risks and impacts can include concerns about unfair labor practices, potential health impacts from projects, and fair compensation for land. Our Communities cases illustrate common concerns raised by people around the globe to accountability offices concerning internationally financed projects.

Question: What is dispute resolution?

Answer: Dispute resolution (also called conflict resolution or problem solving) is a dialogue process that brings together affected people, project sponsors, and other local stakeholders to try to reach a solution to the issues raised in an accountability office complaint. Typically, after finding a complaint eligible, an accountability office will hire a neutral mediator or facilitator to work at the local level of the community that submitted the complaint. The neutral party will assist the community and the operator of the project to voluntarily reach agreements to address the complaint. Often a months- or several-years-long process, dispute resolution frequently involves information sharing, engagement of independent experts to conduct studies to help the parties understand the harm and possible solutions, and negotiation between the parties. Agreements reached through dispute resolution are typically followed by a monitoring period where the accountability office reports on steps to implement commitments in the agreements.

A hallmark of dispute resolution in the accountability office context is the challenging imbalance of resources between the community and the company or government operating a project that has caused harm. Accountability Counsel’s Communities program lawyers work to balance the community’s ability to engage with corporate and institutional power through dispute resolution.

Examples of dispute resolution are Accountability Counsel’s cases in Mongolia, Mexico, and Peru.

Accompanying villagers of Sindhuli District of Nepal during a compliance review investigation visit.

Question: What is compliance review?

Answer: Compliance review (also called compliance investigation) is the process of an accountability office answering the question: did the activity of the institution violate the institution’s own policies or procedures, leading to the harm at issue in the complaint from an affected community? Typically, after finding a complaint eligible, an investigation team conducts a review of all of the documents related to the institution’s activity, interviews all of the relevant players at the institution, and travels to the site of the activity (i.e. village where farmers lost their land or where water was contaminated). There, they inspect the site, interview the community members that submitted the complaint and other stakeholders, and learn about the local context.

At the end of the investigation, the investigation team produces a draft compliance review report, which is typically shared with the institution’s staff and the community members that filed the complaint for feedback on the report’s accuracy. A final version with findings about the project’s compliance and/or non-compliance with the institution’s policies and procedures is sent to the institution’s leadership and made public, often with recommendations. It is then up to the institution’s leadership to determine next steps, including any remedial measures.

Examples of compliance reviews are Accountability Counsel’s cases in India, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.

Question: How do you select your cases and partners? How do communities find you?

Answer: To ensure that we do not replicate the power dynamic we seek to upend and are a trusted, wanted partner in communities, we only take cases in which communities request our support. Communities typically find us through civil society networks, both formal and informal. Often, there are only one or two degrees of separation between directly affected communities harmed by an international investment and a member of Accountability Counsel’s team. We then screen requests through a set of criteria, including whether we believe that there can be a positive outcome for the communities and if lessons from the case can be translated into systemic change. For more information, see our Communities program approach and code of ethics. We do not have the capacity to take on every request for support we receive, so we also serve as a resource hub by training communities and advocates on what accountability offices are and how to use them, sharing lessons from our cases publicly, and connecting people with organizations who may be better able to support them.

Question: What is the scope of your work? Development banks? Corporate accountability?

Answer: Both. Through our Communities, Policy, and Research programs, we work to ensure that communities harmed by international investment have access to justice, regardless of the source of the financing for the project that caused harm. In our Communities program, we have worked on cases involving public development bank financing of governmental operations (e.g. a World Bank loan to a public agency, the Nepalese Electricity Authority); multilateral institution investment in private-sector activity (e.g. an International Finance Corporation (IFC) investment in a tea plantation in India owned by the Tata Group), as well as pure private sector investment (e.g. private banks’ investments into oil operations of Royal Dutch Shell in Russia). Our Policy work seeks to open avenues to address harm where investment has no commensurate accountability office – including impact investment, private equity, and financing from Chinese institutions.

Question: How is Accountability Counsel funded?

Answer: Accountability Counsel is philanthropically funded, with about 95% of our income coming from foundations and 5% from individual donors. In order to ensure that our legal support reaches those who need it most, we never charge our community clients. We also do not take money directly from governments or corporations to ensure that we are a trusted, independent partner to communities. If you would like to support our work, please visit our Donate page.