The following Q&A provides an overview of the accountability offices tied to international investment. If you are an affected person, community, or advocate interested in pursuing an accountability office complaint, please see our Accountability Resource Guide for more information and strategic considerations.

Question: What is an accountability office?

Answer: An accountability office is a forum through which individuals, communities, or other stakeholders can raise concerns when they face actual or potential harm as a result of a public or private sector project, investment, or business-related activity. Also referred to as independent accountability mechanisms (IAMs), grievance mechanisms, or complaints offices, accountability offices are situated within an institution and receive complaints directly from people harmed by the activities of that institution. For example, communities affected by the activities of the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, can raise a complaint to its Compliance Advisor Ombudsman.

Accountability offices typically address complaints through two primary functions: dispute resolution and/or compliance review (described below). They operate independently of the institution they are housed within, but report to the institution’s board or president and rely on the institution for funding.

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

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 inadequate legal assistance.

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. Additionally, these offices often have advisory departments that can provide the institution with useful lessons learned for the improvement of the institution’s policies and practices for future projects.

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, Haiti, and Mongolia demonstrate the potential transformative power that these offices hold for communities to prevent and/or remediate harm.

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.

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

Question: What tools do accountability offices provide to address a community complaint?

Answer: Accountability offices provide two main tools to address grievances and remedy harm: compliance review and dispute resolution.

Compliance Review

Compliance review (also called compliance investigation or compliance audit) 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 described in the complaint? Typically, 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, interviews community members and other stakeholders, and learn about the local context.

At the end of the investigation, the investigation team produces a compliance review report with findings about the project’s compliance and/or non-compliance with the institution’s policies and procedures. The report 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. Remedial measures can include compensation, additional consultation processes on the project, and changes to the project’s design and implementation.

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

Dispute Resolution

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, an accountability office will hire a neutral mediator or facilitator to assist the community and project stakeholders to voluntarily reach agreements to address the complaint. Dispute resolution frequently involves information sharing, engaging independent experts to conduct studies to help the parties understand the harm and possible solutions, and negotiation between the parties. The process often takes several months, if not years. 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 power between the community and the other parties. Accountability Counsel’s Communities lawyers work to balance that power differential so communities can effectively advocate on their own behalf throughout the dialogue process.

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