Accountability Counsel: Working from the Bottom and the Top to Amplify Community Voices

Many of the courses I have taken at Duke have centered around the question of how and why social change occurs (or doesn’t occur). A tension that has come up in most, if not all, of these courses—a tension that seems to transcend place, moment, and context—is one between activism at the policy level and at the local level. Each approach has its strengths and limitations. Top-down interventions like changing a law or passing new regulations are often too broad to be implemented successfully at the local level. In contrast, even if grassroots efforts are extremely successful, they largely lack the resources to influence or inform decision making at the policy level. Accountability Counsel—a legal organization of 14 working from San Francisco, Washington, D.C., South Asia, and East Africa—engages in both policy work and grassroots work as two interdependent components of a single strategy.

Accountability Counsel (AC) is committed to helping individuals and communities harmed by internationally financed development projects through entirely non-judicial mechanisms. It does not file lawsuits or claims against companies or banks. Rather, it works to help communities access and effectively use multilateral development banks’ Accountability Offices. These offices of organizations like the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are ideally places where communities can bring their concerns about a project the bank is financing. However, communities are usually unaware that these offices even exist, and then face many challenges in accessing them. Communities harmed by development projects financed by international institutions are often the most marginalized. They have little access to resources. They have little political power. They face knowledge asymmetries, and sometimes direct intimidation from the bank, project management, or local government. AC works to amplify these communities’ voices to access human rights and environmental justice. The most major societal change AC would like to see is financial actors (banks, individual investors) being active positive forces in the fight to improve human rights around the world. It wants to recast the financial sector as a powerful agent for protecting human rights.

Photo by Charles Magnuson on Unsplash
Under this general mission statement and methodology, AC both acknowledges and embraces the complexities and difficulties that come with working in a single community because it recognizes that close, collaborative grassroots work can lead to sustainable and effective strategies to improve human rights outcomes. It also acknowledges that change must also occur at the policy level as well. Without targeting the root cause of human rights and environmental abuses in addition to alleviating such abuses themselves, communities are left trapped in a cycle of abuses and reconciliation. Challenging structural inequality at the policy level is thus vital to creating lasting change and truly preventing human rights and environmental abuses. I see this collaborative feedback loop of information that flows both ways—from communities to investors to policymakers—as a key feature that enables AC to do such effective, long-lasting work.

This collaborative feedback loop at AC is made up of its three distinct teams that each work at a different level ranging from grassroots to international policy: the Global Communities team, the Policy Advocacy team, and the Research team. The Global Communities team is made up of lawyers who work directly with communities to support locally-led strategies. This team engages with communities on the local level. AC lawyers travel to a community, form relationships with members, and closely support it through the complaint process, which can often take years. The Policy Advocacy team, in contrast, does not engage with individual communities, but rather works to improve the policies and regulations governing development finance. It advocates for Accountability Offices to uphold the social and environmental standards to which institutions have agreed and for the creation of new Accountability Offices where they do not yet exist. The Policy Advocacy team works on an entirely different scale than the Global Communities team, but their work is extremely collaborative and integrated. If the Global Communities team encounters a loophole in a policy that has opened the door for human rights transgressions, it shares that loophole with the Policy Advocacy team. The policy team then works to close that loophole in the international regulation in order to prevent similar transgressions from occurring in the future. The Research Team works to document the lessons learned in communities and this policy work through a public database. When launched, this database will contain information about any complaint ever filed with any Accountability Office around the world. Both the Policy Advocacy and Global Communities teams will be able to use this database—at the policy level, to influence financial institutions and actors; at the local level, to increase access to reliable, transparent information. The work of the Research Team also adds actors outside AC itself to this informational feedback loop. Since the database will be public, financial actors will ideally be able to learn from past projects that have had negative social and environmental impacts.

Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

An example that illustrates this feedback loop model is the way AC is engaging with impact investing. The Communities Team has worked with several communities to mitigate the harm of a project financed by impact investing, which consists of investments made into companies or projects with the specific intention of generating a measurable social or environmental benefit alongside a financial return. Through working with these communities, the Communities Team learned that this rapidly growing impact investing industry does not yet have an Accountability Office. The Policy Advocacy team is now working to change that, partly through a project with Stanford Law School on the unintended consequences of impact investing. Lastly, the Research Team will work to collect and present information and data on these complaints filed about projects financed by impact investing. In addition to adding value to the Policy Advocacy and Global Communities team’s work, this public information will be able to be accessed and used—along with the rest of AC’s database—by future investors who are taking proactive steps to avoid human rights abuses and environmental degradation. At the core of this complex, collaborative strategy is the goal to amplify community voices to protect their human rights and environment.