Interview - AfDB re-tools its Independent Review Mechanism - CRMU Director, Per Eldar Sovik

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Mr Per Eldar Sovik, Director, Compliance Review and Mediation Unit (CRMU)

Question - What impact would the IRM have on Bank operations in terms of transparency and development effectiveness?

Answer - The operating rules and procedures of the IRM encourage transparency. All our reports, including decisions made by the President or the Boards are published and posted on the Bank’s website. When the IRM is mandated to monitor the implementation of findings and recommendations of compliance reviews and management’s action plans, the IRM monitoring reports are also posted on the website.

I would also like to point out that according to the revised IRM operating rules and procedures, which were adopted by the Boards on 16 June 2010, the Bank is now obliged to include information about the IRM in its policies and project documents. This will help us make the IRM better known among different stakeholders and, in particular, people affected by Bank projects.  

In terms of development effectiveness, I believe that having an independent review mechanism responding to complaints from people and communities likely to be affected by Bank-financed projects, by itself helps improve performance and thereby enhances development effectiveness. The people who reside in project areas have a good knowledge of their local environment. If they perceive that a project is likely to have a negative impact on their environment as a result of non-compliance with the Bank’s policies, and staff are made aware of the situation, the Bank will have a good chance to address and rectify the problem.

Also, when Bank staff, who are responsible for a project are aware of the possibility that people may lodge a complaint to the IRM, they will pay more attention to due diligence and compliance with the Bank’s policies and procedures. For example, by allowing local communities to effectively participate in the planning and implementation of projects and by ensuring that meaningful consultations are held with project affected people. These days I often hear that Bank staff are making good efforts to ensure that projects are “IRM proof”, which is a good sign that the mechanism already has some positive impact on how the Bank is conducting its business.

Question - How has the IRM fared so far since its inception?

Answer - As you know, the Boards of Directors approved the establishment of the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) in 2004, but it has only been operational since 2006 when the Director was appointed to administer the mechanism.

We received the first Request for a compliance review in 2007 and since then we have received three more complaints. This might seem like a small number, but one has to bear in mind that it takes time for project-affected people to learn about the IRM and their right to lodge complaints if they believe a project will cause harm to them. Compared with the complaint-handling mechanisms of other MDBs the IRM has in fact received more complaints during its first years of operation than our counterparts did during their start up phase.

Since the IRM became operational in 2006, we have devoted much time on outreach, which includes disseminating information materials and conducting workshops for national and local civil society organizations and community leaders in regional member countries of the Bank. More than 400 civil society organizations from some 30 African countries have attended our workshops. I can confidently say that the IRM is becoming more visible in the regional member countries of the Bank.

Question  - In your interaction with African civil society groups and NGOs, would you support the notion that they are not proactive enough in defending their environment against the negative impacts of poorly designed development projects?

Answer - Civil Society Organizations and NGOs play an important role in educating people about the potential risks and the negative impacts projects could have on the environment and peoples’ livelihoods. My interaction with African NGOs has also revealed that they are not looking for opportunities to lodge complaints against the Bank, but would rather interact with the Bank to find solutions to potential problems. This may be one of the reasons why CRMU over the past three years has only received four complaints.

In this respect I would like to share some experiences of IRM’s community awareness activities, which we undertake in close cooperation with local NGOs. We normally undertake these events in relation to high-risk projects. People who have attended these workshops have come forward and expressed their grievances, and with the assistance of the local NGO, they have been able to resolve the problems with representatives of their Government or the Bank’s local staff.  Since they are aware that the consequence of not addressing the problems could lead to an official complaint to the IRM, the authorities and Bank staff have been forthcoming toward finding acceptable solutions to the problems. In the coming months we intend to intensify this type of outreach. 

I would also like to emphasize that African NGOs need support, especially to assess the environment and social impact of projects, and also to learn more about and to understand the Bank’s environmental and social safeguards policies. Africa needs a strong civil society to safeguard the environment and to help in ensuring that the projects’ benefits reach out to all the intended communities. For the IRM to be effective we rely on cooperation with civil society organizations in terms of disseminating information about the IRM as well as their support to local communities which encounter the adverse impact of Bank-financed projects.