Citizen complaint mechanisms in the World Bank Group

What they do and how they work

25 May 2003 | Inside the institutions

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the World Bank faced a storm of criticism for failing to implement its own policies in many of the projects it supported. After the independent review of the Narmada dam project accused the Bank of ‘gross delinquency’ on social and environmental policies and found that hundreds of thousands of people stood to lose their livelihoods, the Bank was persuaded to establish a mechanism to which citizens could appeal when they believe they have been harmed by Bank staff failure to implement their own policies.

The Inspection Panel – as the accountability mechanism is called – started work in summer 1994. The Compliance Adviser/Ombudsman (CAO), an office which scrutinises the social and environmental performance of the Bank’s private sector arms was established in 2000.

Filing a claim to the Panel can be very simple. Requesters (who can ask for their identity to be kept confidential) only need to file a brief letter showing that:

  1. They live in the project area (or represent people who do) and are being or likely to be affected adversely by project activities.
  2. They believe that the harm results from failure by the Bank to follow its policies and procedures.
  3. Their concerns have been raised with Bank management and they are not satisfied with the outcome.

If needed, the Panel may ask requesters to provide more information. Among the Bank’s policies often raised in claims are those on Involuntary Resettlement, Environmental Assessment, Natural Habitats, Indigenous Peoples, and Project Supervision. The procedure to file a complaint with the CAO is very similar.

Once a claim is filed, the Panel determines whether it meets the eligibility criteria described above. If so, the Panel evaluates the claim, Bank management’s response, and other available evidence and then recommends whether or not the claim merits a full investigation. The Bank’s Board can overturn a Panel recommendation for an investigation but only by questioning specific technical eligibility criteria. If an investigation takes place, the Panel presents its findings to the Board in a report, and Management prepares recommendations for the Board as to how to proceed in light of the Panel’s findings. The Board then announces what, if any, remedial measures will be undertaken, and has a responsibility to supervise those remedial measures.

The Panel is financed by the Bank and its three members are nominated by the Bank President and approved by its Board. But Panel members cannot have worked for the World Bank for at least two years prior to serving on the Panel and can never work for the Bank after serving on it. The CAO has similar staff quarantine provisions.

The Panel will not – in itself – solve problems. It can raise issues and endorse the complaints being made by citizens but is only advisory and has no powers to ensure effective follow-up by the Bank or the borrower government. The CAO has perhaps even less power as an informal mechanism, which has led NGOs to keep on calling for extension of the Inspection Panel to private sector operations of the Bank. Sometimes Bank Management has responded to Inspection Panel findings by proposing measures which, if properly implemented, could address the problems. Other times, however, the Bank takes too long to respond to Panel findings and does not ensure changes on the ground. For example the Coal India claimants have now waited nearly six months, rather than the supposed six weeks, to get Bank management to respond to a critical Panel report.

Filing a claim however raises the concerns of project-affected people directly to the highest levels in the Bank and may itself improve project implementation. For example in the Planafloro project, Brazil, soon after the claim was filed, hundreds of thousands of acres of land were accorded legal protection as required by the loan agreement.

Key aspects of the Bank’s complaint mechanisms

Inspection Panel Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman
Institutional remit: World Bank public sector operations (IBRD/IDA) World Bank private sector operations (IFC/MIGA)
Key purpose(s): An independent forum for citizens who believe that they have been or could be directly harmed by a project financed by the World Bank.
  1. to examine complaints of people affected by IFC and MIGA-supported projects, and
  2. to advise IFC senior management on social andenvironmental issues.
  • Investigate and report on citizen claims that Bank staff have violated Bank policies and procedures.
  • Reports to the Board of Executive Directors.
  • Establish mediation and conflict resolution.
  • Conduct reviews, audit peformance,
  • provide advice to Bank Group or company staff.
  • Reports to the World Bank’s President.
Current cases:
  • Coal India
  • Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline
  • Yacyretá Hydroelectric Project, Argentina/Paraguay
  • Yanacocha mine, Peru
  • Bulyanhulu mine, Tanzania
  • Chemplast, India
  • Pangue 2, Chile
Current head: Edward S. Ayensu Meg Taylor
Staff: Three panel members, plus secretariat Eight staff members
Claims to date: 28 13
Address: Inspection Panel
1818 H St., NW
Washington D.C. 20433, USA
2121 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20433, USA
Contact e-mail:

Forthcoming Sept. 2003: Demanding Accountability: Civil Society Claims and the World Bank Inspection Panel, Dana Clark, Jonathan Fox and Kay Treakle (eds.) (Rowman & Littlefield)