By Krystin Gollihue
“In the world of social venture, there’s a bit of an obsession on how for-profit for-good impact investing will change the world. But there are still some core issues that can only be addressed through philanthropy,” says Natalie Bridgeman Fields, Executive Director and Founder of Accountability Counsel, an organization dedicated to defending the rights of communities affected by internationally-financed development projects. Their mission is to offer assistance to communities who have been harmed by projects like dams, mines, and oil pipelines – projects that often abuse the communities they are meant to help. While for-profit philanthropists may desire to do good, their monied interests may continue injustice rather than raise the voices of the underserved. Organizations like Accountability Counsel have only the community’s interests at heart, allowing them to make lasting change.
Founded by Fields in 2009, the San Francisco-based organization has three separate programs: Work in Communities, Resources, and Policy Advocacy. The first, Work in Communities, is what Fields says is “the heart of the work.” Accountability Counsel addresses human rights abuses caused by internationally-financed development projects through a very unique pathway: accountability complaint offices. These are the mechanisms within financing institutions such as banks and governments that make sure that when money is given to a development project, it isn’t harming local communities by poisoning water supplies, forcing displacement, or allowing other abuses to occur. Complaint offices have existed for at least 20 years, but very few human rights organizations have utilized them as a means for social justice. Impacted communities rarely have access to the information, finances, and technical expertise needed to navigate these offices, so Accountability Counsel works with the communities to demand a fully-transparent investigation of whether the investment violated the community’s rights.
If a community feels they are being harmed by development, they seek out Accountability Counsel indirectly and of their own accord, usually through local, established NGO networks that already know of Accountability Counsel’s work. With Accountability Counsel’s help, the communities appeal to the complaint office to investigate the project’s compliance with policy. If the community chooses to enter into dispute resolution, Accountability Counsel offers legal training and technical support to establish needs, map out strategies, form coordinating groups or campaigns as needed, and practice mediation skills.
Foremost to Accountability Counsel’s approach is the autonomy of the communities in this process, something that could not be achieved through an organization whose interests lie first-and-foremost with profit. The Work in Communities program “supports communities to themselves be the leaders in their complaints to these accountability offices.” The program is completely grassroots: the communities decide for themselves what they need and which avenue they want to pursue with the accountability complaint, and Accountability Counsel provides no-cost assistance in navigating whatever process they choose.
The other two programs are split into Resources and Policy Advocacy. Within the Resources program, Accountability Counsel publishes collective data and conducts research on issues affecting development impact, in addition to holding the International Advocates’ Working Group Conference. The Policy Advocacy program deals with more systemic policy change. Fields says, “Our assumption is that these accountability offices are only as fair and effective as we as civil society demand them to be,” and so Accountability Counsel works to make sure the offices are operating with a degree of independence, fairness, efficacy, professionality, and accessibility so that communities may use them effectively.
The Dramatic Effects of Accountability
Accountability Counsel’s staff is fairly small, consisting of three stateside attorneys working on strategic support programs, two advocates based in South Asia, a policy director in Washington, DC, an operations coordinator, and the director, in addition to five or six pro bono lawyers working on everything from research memos to fully-integrated complaint casework. Despite their size and youth, the organization has seen some dramatic effects of their work, on both the community level and through policy.
Fields describes one example in Oaxaca, Mexico where the Counsel worked with a local village who had been concerned about a hydroelectric project funded in part by the United States government. The project would have used up the village’s only source of clean water, which also happened to be of cultural and religious value to the villagers. Accountability Council worked with the community to file a complaint with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) accountability office, and after a series of conversations, all parties agreed that the company could not continue with the project. According to Fields, this was “the first ever identified case of dispute resolution being used to prevent human rights and environmental abuses through one of these accountability offices.”
In terms of policy, accountability offices are a fairly new concept in international law, but as it evolves, there is further opportunity to help the international community. She says, “In the last 6 years, we’ve seen that we’ve had a positive impact on the rules that govern accountability at every single multilateral world development bank, federal agencies, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), so we’ve seen really tremendous progress.”
But how does such a small, niche group leave such a large mark on impact policy? Fields believes that it is their needs-centered approach that allows them to tackle the big issues. Accountability Counsel focuses entirely on the desires and voices of the most traditionally abused populations, specifically women and children, something they refer to as a “Gender-based Approach.” Fields says, “We call ourselves community-driven: the rights of communities define how we work, and their priorities define where we put emphasis.” While some communities want the development completely stopped, others might simply want the project to go forward with respect to their rights. For Accountability Counsel, it doesn’t matter what the “ask” is; what matters is that communities understand their rights and have the ability to achieve their goals. While the legal nonprofit sector typically looks for “just the right plaintiffs, just the right clients who they can use as an example or poster child,” Accountability Counsel prioritizes making sure that traditionally abused populations have their voices heard and are given the ability to make their own decisions to seek justice.
Fields says the key to ensuring the longevity of a group like Accountability Counsel is making sure you have the expertise required to meet the unique need you serve. Her team has become the expert on these accountability offices. An organization can’t be distracted by the numerous demands people want them to address. The key is to find your focus, learn it through and through, and commit to change in that specific area.
In addition to finding and committing to a focus, it’s important to couple that unique niche with a unique need that exists in the world. The communities that the Counsel serves “are the most marginalized in the world, dealing with life or death issues.” They can’t afford to pay for the high quality representation the Accountability Counsel provides. And when a community is fighting for their rights against huge corporations, it’s important to have someone alongside to be a true ally, completely committed to the needs of the community. Despite the growth of philanthropy in the private sector, the Accountability Counsel is an example of why nonprofit organizations alone are needed to fill the gaps that other interests can leave.
Founded in 2009 by Natalie Bridgeman Fields, Accountability Counsel assists communities to defend their rights in the wake of development projects that cause harm. Through complaints requesting dispute resolution and investigations, they have supported communities in 21 countries, including Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and Mongolia. They provide resources on accountability offices and have influenced accountability policy at every major international financial institution and two U.S. agencies.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University. Her research focuses on digitally-born composing practices and American Indian digital rhetoric.