Accountability mechanisms gave people and communities the right to contest harmful development projects, but challenges remain

A group of residents, with women and a child in the foreground and men behind them, of India’s Narmada Valley who protested construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Tone woman in the forefront holds up a sign stating: DAMNED! Without proper rehabilitation they are DOOMED! Now with justice denied they are being DROWNED. S.O.S. FROM NARMADA.
In the 1980s, female activists in India led huge protests against the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam. That opposition prompted the World Bank to withdraw funding for the project and establish a panel that gave communities the right to challenge controversial, bank-funded projects. Photo: Courtesy of International Rivers

When the Sardar Sarovar Dam began operating in 2017 on India’s sacred Narmada River, it was one of the world’s largest and most controversial hydroelectric dams. It also triggered a global movement that ultimately empowered individuals to challenge large hydropower dams and other development projects — funded by international financial institutions, or IFIs — that threaten communities or the environment.

Construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam began in the 1960s, but it was a $450 million loan from the World Bank in 1985 that sped up the project. The bank approved funding for the dam, even though it failed to meet India’s environmental regulations. It eventually flooded 245 villages and displaced 250,000 people.

Intense opposition prompted the World Bank to withdraw its funding for the dam. That same pressure led the bank to establish the world’s first inspection panel to address complaints from individuals and communities affected by development projects it funded. Other IFIs followed the World Bank’s lead.

“Today, almost every international development finance institution is required to have environmental and social policies and some mechanism that allows people to raise concerns about the projects they fund,” said David Hunter, president of Peregrine Environmental Consulting and a professor of international environment law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Last year was the 30th anniversary of the creation of the World Bank Inspection Panel. This year is the 25th anniversary of the World Bank establishing a compliance advisor/ombudsman position at its International Finance Corporation, the largest global development institution focused on private sector projects in developing countries.

To mark those anniversaries, Mott provided a $200,000 grant to support a work of history called The Perspectives Project: Documenting and Reimagining IFI Accountability. The project will document the history of accountability mechanisms, where they’ve worked and why they’ve fallen short of expectations.

Since 1988, the Foundation has provided over $120 million in grants to organizations whose work informed the development and implementation of accountability mechanisms. Hunter said Mott’s long-term support was “critical to the success of this work.”

“Where these accountability mechanisms were once unique, they are now the standard for all public and private development finance institutions,” Hunter added. “That’s huge.”

A wide landscape image of a very large dam in India’s Narmada Valley, named Sardar Sarovar Dam, with a central section of the slowly dam releasing of water downstream.
The Sardar Sarovar Dam was built in India’s Narmada River despite failures to meet environmental standards and years of community protests. Photo: Ankit K Sinha / Shutterstock

Documenting the past, informing the future

Hunter is leading The Perspectives Project, a series of online essays by advocates who have worked on accountability mechanisms. There also are plans to produce two books, create an online repository of information about the mechanisms and have experts in the field give presentations about the work.

The Perspectives Project aims to increase awareness of accountability mechanisms, share 30 years of knowledge with a new generation of advocates, and make it easier for citizens to express concerns and seek bank-funded remedies when development projects harm communities.

Among the projects Mott supported as part of the accountability mechanisms work was the establishment of the Bank Information Center in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit organization works with individuals and communities affected by development projects that were funded by the World Bank or other IFIs. Since 1990, Mott has provided $6.9 million in grants to the center.

Elana Berger, executive director of the Bank Information Center, said accountability mechanisms are “hugely important” and have forced positive change on a global scale.

“When this work started, there were no social or environmental standards,” Berger said. “If a World Bank project ruined your life, it was tough luck — there was nothing you could do.”

One of the Bank Information Center’s recent success stories involved a community in rural Uganda, where a road project funded by the World Bank led to a spike in teen pregnancies and the affected girls dropping out of school. The reason: Men working on the road project were sexually exploiting girls and women in the community, sometimes violently.

When World Bank officials in Uganda and local project managers downplayed the allegations, Berger’s team took the case to the bank’s Inspection Panel in Washington, D.C. In response, the bank pulled its funding for the project and implemented new global policies designed to prevent gender-based violence in all communities near projects it funds.

“We had women and girls from the community in Uganda who were willing to speak to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel,” Berger said. “What they did had a positive impact on women and girls around the world.”

A photo of Vincent with a natural flowing river through the wilderness behind him.
Gabino Vicente, a leader in the Indigenous Chinanteco community in Oaxaca, Mexico, stands before the culturally important spring his community successfully defended. Photo: Courtesy of the Accountability Counsel

Progress and the need to do more

Accountability mechanisms have increased citizens’ rights in international governance, but the process is complex. Challenging harmful development projects is costly and time-consuming, and most IFIs believe they are accountable only to their member governments, Hunter said. He added that banks rarely provide remedies for any social or environmental harm their projects cause.

“The accountability mechanisms can bring individual voices into the board rooms of these banks, but they haven’t fundamentally shifted the development model,” Hunter said. “The development model is top-down and doesn’t consider effects on communities. Most banks still measure success by the quantity of projects versus the quality of projects on the ground. It’s a very closed system that still leads to development disasters.”

Despite those challenges, some communities have used accountability mechanisms to block controversial development projects or force changes in them. Some of those projects are featured in The Perspectives Project that Mott supported.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, members of the Indigenous Chinanteco community used a dispute resolution process to prevent construction of a hydroelectric dam that would have cut off access to a culturally important spring.

“Now, over a decade later, the spring is still a community focal point and critical water resource, and a celebrated source of community pride,” wrote Natalie Bridgeman Fields in one of her essays in The Perspectives Project. Fields is a human rights and environmental lawyer who founded the nonprofit Accountability Counsel, which helped the Chinanteco community save its spring.

In her essay, Bridgeman Fields said accountability mechanisms are flawed but essential.

“I am an accountability mechanism cynic, but also a leading champion of the existence, use and improvement of these mechanisms,” she said. “One of the advances I’ve seen in this field over the past 30 years is the sheer number of people who are now aware of accountability offices as a tool and are capable of supporting communities through the complaint process.”