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Complaints Handling: Small is Beautiful

Sabina Panth's picture

I wish to share some thoughts on the design of a new governance tool that I recently came across – Grievance Redress and Complaint Handling System, which entails a genuinely focused bottom-up methodology that instills permanent strength to demand-driven accountability.

An effective system of complaint handling is characterized by multiple complaint uptake locations and channels for receiving complaints with a standard set of procedures. While this is promising, formalizing and improving already existing informal and traditional structures of grievance redress, such as panchayat village councils in South Asia and chieftaincy systems in Africa, can be easy to manage, cost effective and sustainable.  Moreover, many donor projects now mandate formation of local user groups, such as village-road-user-committees, district-road-user committees that comprise of labor employees and beneficiaries of the project and function as watch dogs during project implementation. These groups can be mobilized to institute local grievance redress committees, which would work to address and resolve their concerns and queries pertaining to a project.

The government of India is contemplating revitalizing the traditional, village level nyaya (justice) groups to render access justice in rural areas simpler and quicker. It is argued that nyaya panchayats guided by local traditions, culture and behavioral pattern of the village community instill confidence in the people towards the administration of justice. Villagers that know each other well feel strong social pressure to behave and comply with local rules and regulations.  Also, local committees acquainted with local customs and nuances of the local idiom are better able to understand local issues and apply locally congruent means to resolve disputes.  This would relieve the burden for higher level involvement, resulting in a reduced number of appeals and revisions.   Furthermore, it would cut costs on expenditures which would otherwise have to be incurred when establishing a chain of command all the way to the project management unit.  However, measures adhering to democratic principles have to be applied in the formation of such village level committees to avoid elite capture and manipulation by vested interest groups.  This requires careful selection of members to represent the committees.

The project user or beneficiary groups (mentioned in the second paragraph) can be mobilized to elect members of local level complaint handling committees.  The local NGOs or project social mobilizers can facilitate the process.  Membership of these committees should be representative of diverse social groups and their issues. Women, indigenous people, village elders, leaders of the project user groups and individuals, who hold good standing in the community, like school teachers and educated professionals, should be considered during the selection process. Elected members will need to be oriented on project operations and trained on grievance redress procedures.  They should also acquire strong leadership skills to liaise and negotiate with all stakeholders of the project including user groups, private companies, district government officials and the project management unit to resolve conflicts and seek justice.  Most importantly, the committee should build strong cohesion and solidarity among its members to resist manipulation and intimidation from vested interest groups.

Grievance occurs usually as a result of inadequate information dissemination and lack of proper participation of and consultation with affected population.  Lack of transparency in operational procedure, poor assessment of socio-economic impact, poor documentation of notification, improper management and implementation practices give room to manipulate the grievance process.  It is, therefore, important to develop a communication strategy with a strong participatory component, which should be incorporated in every stage of project planning and implementation.  This will allow the project design team to assess and analyze potential issues and risks associated with project operations and for project stakeholders, especially the affected persons to understand operational processes and access the benefits it brings.  Similarly, project monitoring should be designed in a way that it works closely with the local grievance redress committees to catch problems and resolve them before they become more serious and widespread.

In conclusion, it should be noted that a truly democratic system does not necessitate a separate, detached structure for complaint handling.  Complaint handling systems should be seen only as short-term, temporary sanitizers toward a longer term democratic solution.  

Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Collection (Flickr)