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By Stephanie Amoako, Accountability Counsel

When projects financed by international actors harm African communities, few options exist for meaningful justice and remedy. To address this accountability gap, several multilateral development banks, including the African Development Bank (AfDB), created independent accountability mechanisms or offices to address grievances stemming from their financing. After over a year of review, the AfDB has made sweeping changes to its accountability office. These changes, if fully and robustly implemented, will have a positive impact for communities in Africa seeking to have a say in the AfDB-funded projects that impact them.

In December 2019, the AfDB launched an external review of its accountability office, the Independent Review Mechanism, to get a “​​thorough assessment of the extent to which the IRM has been an effective recourse mechanism for people affected by projects.” The external review team found significant challenges in the IRM’s track record with handling grievances including poor communication with complainants and a need for increased transparency and predictability of the process. Of the 96 complaints that have been filed to the IRM, our independent analysis of the data shows that over 77% of complaints have closed without reaching a meaningful outcome, leaving grievances unaddressed and highlighting the need for real change in the AfDB’s accountability framework.

The review included two rounds of public consultations in which African civil society organisations and organisations around the world submitted feedback and recommendations for strengthening the IRM and the overall accountability framework. Recommendations from civil society organisations included calls to remove barriers for affected communities to access the mechanism and embed more opportunities for complainants to shape the outcomes of the process.

The AfDB’s Board of Directors recently approved changes to the IRM, which will now be known as the Independent Recourse Mechanism. Here are some of the key changes and what they can mean for communities in Africa seeking remedy for harms related to AfDB projects:

Reduced Barriers to Bringing Complaints

Communities must first know that the IRM exists before they can consider pursuing complaints about AfDB projects. The new IRM procedures include a new and critical requirement for the AfDB’s clients and sub-clients to share information on the IRM with project-affected communities. The new procedures also require the IRM to develop a comprehensive outreach strategy. These efforts, if implemented fully, should increase communities’ knowledge about the mechanism.

Further, the new IRM procedures remove several barriers to access that were in the old IRM procedures. For example, in the old procedures, communities could not bring a complaint if there was already a pending lawsuit in the judicial system. These types of “parallel proceeding” bars unnecessarily restrict complaints even though the issues and parties may be different across the various processes. Another barrier that was removed was the restriction on complaints from one individual. The review report found that several complaints alleging harm had been barred from consideration because they had been filed by just one person. The new procedures recognize that even if a project has a negative impact on just one person, or if only one person is able to lead a complaint process, there should be an avenue for justice.

Increased Fairness and Effectiveness During the Complaints Process

Once communities enter an accountability process, the process must be equitable and therefore must address any power differentials between impacted communities and powerful AfDB clients and the AfDB itself, a large multilateral institution. The updated procedures include several provisions that centre communities in the accountability process, including a commitment to it being “culturally appropriate, gender-responsive, and equally available to all.” This includes new requirements to prevent and address retaliation risks to those using the office.

For compliance review investigations that examine whether the AfDB followed its own environmental and social policies during projects, the new procedures permit complainants to comment on a draft compliance investigation report before it’s finalized, giving them an opportunity to correct any factual inaccuracies. Crucially, too, the procedures include a new requirement for AfDB management to consult with the complainants to shape remedial actions to address the areas of non-compliance. This should help make the remedial actions fit-for-purpose and actually responsive to communities’ needs.

For dispute resolution, which brings together the complainants, AfDB clients, and other stakeholders to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution, the new procedures commit the IRM to being “sensitive to the existence of power asymmetries between the negotiating parties.” The office is now able to “propose capacity building exercises to facilitate meaningful participation by the parties,” which should enhance fairness.

Greater Transparency and Stakeholder Engagement

New policy provisions enhance the transparency of the accountability office, which is important for trust in and an understanding of its processes. For example, the IRM is now required to publish “all relevant documentation related to complaints handling” on its website. Additionally, the IRM will now seek input from an external advisory group consisting of members of civil society organisations, the private sector, academia, and other groups to evaluate whether the IRM is operating effectively.

Missed Opportunities and Next Steps

Unfortunately, the review did not address all of civil society’s recommendations. The key outcome of any accountability process should be fully addressing harm and restoring communities’ livelihoods. While the new requirement for consultation on remedial actions is an important step, the AfDB needs to make resources available to fully address areas of non-compliance and harm. We call on the AfDB to implement one of our key recommendations and launch consultations on a remedy fund.

Going forward, the IRM and the AfDB must implement the new IRM procedures fully and in a manner that centres the communities using the office. Additionally, the AfDB is currently undertaking reviews of two other key policies that can determine whether AfDB projects benefit or harm African communities - the Integrated Safeguards System and its Policy on Disclosure and Access to Information. The AfDB should include several opportunities for meaningful consultation as a part of these reviews and commit that the outcome of the reviews will be a stronger framework. Civil society will continue to call upon the AfDB to centre the rights of local communities throughout all of its work.