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Can International Organizations be Accountable? Practice vs. Evidence

17 December 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

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In our UN Governance updates, we have regularly highlighted the monthly briefings that the UNOPS senior management provides to the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board to updated on the progress made in address governance and accountability gaps that led to the S3i scandal. Last week, the New York Times reported that those accountability interventions have included an attempt to recover one year’s salary and US$63.6 million from the former Deputy Executive Director of UNOPS, who led the S3i programme.

The former Deputy Executive Director is apparently contesting the recovery in the UN Dispute Tribunal and criminal investigations are also ongoing in different countries, so there is no official statement from the UN on this. Nevertheless, such efforts to hold senior leaders personally financially accountable for decisions they’ve made on behalf of the UN is laudable.

Yet such accountability efforts stand in stark contrast, for instance, with the UN’s approach to the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, something the New York Times has also widely reported on. What accounts for these drastically different responses and is there a way to ensure more consistent accountability of international organizations?

Our spotlight this week explores the latest research on different forms of accountability tools in international organizations. Practices vary considerable across different international organizations, and yet there is a growing body of evidence on what mechanisms are effective and why. As the international community gears up for the 2024 Summit of the Future, our aim is to showcase evidence that policymakers in governments, the UN, and civil society can use in developing their respective positions.

Why International Organization accountability measures are often inconsistent

As with much of the emerging research on performance of international organizations, research on accountability of international organizations also increasingly highlights the important role of member states. In both the UNOPS and Haiti examples, organizational responses and accountability measures were discussed with member states at the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board and the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee respectively. The UNOPS Board endorsed the proposal to have the Office of Legal Affairs explore options to recover the S3i funds (see A.2. of the 10 Point Action Plan). Conversely, the Fifth Committee was unable to agree on the UN’s legal liability, and related assessed funding for compensation claims, in the case of the cholera outbreak in Haiti. The fact that accountability in the UNOPS case would lead to recovery of funds as opposed to the payment of additional funds in the Haiti case likely also figured into the different outcomes.

“States often have ambivalent attitudes towards IO accountability and may wish to avoid the IO or indeed indirectly shield themselves from being responsible for reparations.” - K.E. Boon & F. Megret, ‘New Approaches to the Accountability of IOs’, 2019

The reality is that any process involving member states is inherently political, and that reality influences the solutions that are put in place. Haiti, as host to the UN peacekeeping mission, could have, under its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) requested that a claims commission be set up. Yet, with Haiti heavily dependent on the UN for the provision of basic services and assistance, holding the UN mission to account in this manner was fraught with political and financial risk. Even with intense lobbying from civil society, the power imbalance between the host country and the UN appears to have been a significant obstacle to enacting the existing accountability measures.

Eliminating political considerations from accountability mechanisms

Does this mean that international organizations' accountability measures are inherently subject to the whims of Realpolitik? The Inspection Panel mechanisms prevalent in multilateral development banks (MDBs) and international financial institutions (IFIs) demonstrate that there is a way to minimize the politics and take a systematic approach to accountability.

The World Bank was the first to set up an Inspection Panel (IP) as a grievance mechanism for beneficiary communities in 1993. The Inspection Panel allows people and communities who believe that they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project to file a complaint which is reviewed by an independent, quasi-judicial panel who can recommend corrective action. The final decision on whether to cancel or change a project still lies with the senior management and the MDB’s governing body, so the system is not completely immune to politics. But that decision-making process is heavily influenced by the independent findings of the IP, thereby mitigating political considerations.

Virtually all MDBs and IFIs have instituted similar grievance mechanisms for communities, and independent research shows that they are not just window-dressing. A review of the complaints to all MDBs from 1994 to 2022 showed that approximately 52% were deemed eligible for mediation or compliance investigation, and in 25% of the investigations, it was found that MDB non-compliance with their own policies had led to harm. Even when the IP concludes that the complainant has not been harmed, it has been found that the process influences positive behavioral and process changes within the bank and amongst stakeholders. Another case study of inspection requests filed with the World Bank between 1994 and 2016 found that:

“The IP has seen WBG managers self-monitor their own behavior; it has seen peers, other donors, and governments monitor WBG actions to ensure it is meeting its standards; it has seen communities and civil society groups monitor WBG actions on the ground. It has reduced errors and at times corruption within Bank management, and made it harder to conduct shoddy analysis or rush projects to meet deadlines and lending targets. Transparency from the IP has facilitated the involvement of displaced and indigenous communities in WB policymaking through formal Action Plans, and functionally made the WB more accountable to the lives of those affected by projects.” - B. Sovacool, ‘Cooperative or Inoperative? Accountability and Transparency at the World Bank’s Inspection Panel’, 2017

These grievance mechanisms focus on applying the MDBs own standards, approved by member states. In doing so, they allow for a more systematic approach to decision-making that minimizes financial and political considerations that can lead to inconsistent accountability decision, as highlighted in the UNOPS and Haiti examples. By allowing beneficiary communities to directly file complaints with the MDBs (if their case is not already under judicial review by a national body), these mechanisms also mitigate political risks for host country governments and “can compensate for—and complement—weaknesses in a state’s administrative sovereignty.

Community Grievance Mechanisms are not only for MDBs

Grievance mechanisms, which allow beneficiary communities to hold international  organizational accountable, cannot solve all accountability problems, but they clearly do make international organizations better. As the world heads into 2024 towards the Summit for the Future, one of the few things the world can agree on is that international organizations need to do better. But can other international organizations beyond the banks and financial institutions adopt similar grievance mechanisms?

The short answer is yes, if their member states agree to such a mechanism. Member states will always be concerned about the potential costs or political fallout from such grievance mechanisms, which is why after 30 years of existence they have not necessarily been adopted by other international organization even when the same member states sit on the Board. For example, in 2014 the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPs Executive Board adopted social and environmental standards with a grievance mechanism that allows affected communities to file a complaint with UNDP for review by the Compliance Unit or for mediation through the Stakeholder Response Mechanism. No such mechanism exists for UNOPS or UNFPA, nor anywhere else in the UN system.

A key factor in convincing member states to adopt such mechanisms, and in making them genuinely accessible to community members, is civil society. In-depth research on how and when multi-stakeholder accountability (MSA) mechanisms are adopted by governing bodies of international organizations shows that the actions and strength of civil society networks play a major role in convincing governing bodies, and especially their most powerful members, to adopt grievance mechanisms.

“Concerns about the distributional effects of MSA mechanisms may deter states from endorsing TCS [transnational civil society] demands. Consequently, the advocacy tactics highlighted by scholarship on transnational activism—in particular lobbying, information dissemination, and publicity generation—are often critical for ensuring the successful passage of MSA reforms through the policy process.” - Ranjit Lall, Making Global Governance Accountable: Civil Society, States, and the Politics of Reform, 2023

Another study of who has successfully used the grievance mechanisms of MDBs also highlights the importance of both international and domestic civil society organizations in supporting Project Affected Populations (PAP) in successfully obtaining accountability. A study of 500 complaints submitted to the World Bank, Asian, African and Inter-American Development Banks and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development showed that:

“PAP in developing countries will more often achieve positive outcomes from the grievance mechanism process if they receive assistance from international and national nongovernmental organizations. These findings therefore demonstrate that transnational activists can fulfill a facilitating role as “accountability enablers” and that domestic representatives are especially effective in problem-solving processes, while international representatives are especially effective in compliance processes.” - E. Gunaydin and S. Park, ‘Accountability enablers? The role of transnational activism in the use of the multilateral development bank grievance mechanisms’, 2023

Using research to inform policy positions at the 2024 Summit of the Future

In September 2024, the UN General Assembly will host a Summit of the Future which is intended to lead "towards a reinvigorated multilateral system that is better positioned to positively impact people’s lives."Accountability, governance gaps and trust will be key topics. As our post aims to highlight, there are concrete reasons why inconsistencies and gaps exist in these areas, and there is also quantitative and qualitative evidence for how to address those gaps. Solutions will need to be contextualized and agreed across complex set of stakeholders. While ReformWorks does not advocate for particular solutions, we do encourage policymakers in donor and recipient countries and civil society to explore the excellent independent research and evidence on what does or does not work in making international organizations accountable and effective.


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The WFP Executive Board holds informal consultations on the draft Country Strategic Plans and related evaluations on 18 December 2023. On 19 December, its Governance Review Working Group meets as well as the Executive Board Bureau.

  • The Fifth Committee has extended its current session to allow members more time to find consensus on the 2024 programme and budget resolution.


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