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Partner Spotlight: Accountability Counsel
October 13, 2022

We’re continuing to honor our 10 Year Anniversary and the Power of Partnerships, reflecting on our project with Accountability Counsel (a Teradata Cares-funded project), and as they look to the future, seeing where there are opportunities and challenges with data science in supporting their mission.

Millions of people around the world face human rights and environmental abuses. Accountability Counsel defends the rights of communities that could be negatively impacted by international development projects and private financing. They have three main activities for assisting those in need: providing pro bono legal services directly to the communities, policy advocacy via fighting for improved laws and policies to protect communities, and research into the state of accountability in international finance, including keeping track of “complaints” i.e. formal requests for accountability, throughout their lifecycle. 

The status of complaints is freely available to the public across all the different IAMs (Independent Accountability Mechanisms) for every major bank/financial institute. Gathering data and monitoring complaint statuses across IAMs used to be separate and painfully manual.

Accountability Counsel has collected this data over the past 10+ years by manually looking up the information for individual complaints on each website and recording it on Excel.

We kicked off our project with Accountability Counsel during an in-person DataDive event in 2018 and worked closely with Project Champion Samer Araabi, Accountability Counsel’s Research Director. Over the course of a weekend, 25-30 data science volunteers explored and  analyzed local complaint data on international development projects and worked to standardize the process of collecting and updating complaint data. In the end, reducing the time to automate data collection by 50% on key websites. Volunteers also helped understand what aspects of filed complaints determined success and unearthed insights to reduce the number of ineligible complaints.

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DataKind's DataDive event with Accountability Counsel in 2018.

We spoke with Samer about the focus and future of Accountability Counsel and what he thinks any mission-driven organization needs to have in place in order to harness the power of data science and AI in the service of humanity. We’re honored to reconnect with the Accountability Counsel and share their story of the valuable work they do. Enjoy!

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Samer Araabi (left) at the DataDive event in 2018.

What inspires Accountability Counsel to advocate for and amplify the voices of communities around the world to protect their human rights and their environment which may be harmed by internationally financed projects?

Internationally financed projects such as dams, mines, and oil pipelines are notorious for environmental and human rights abuses. Increasingly, we see renewables and climate finance contributing to the same type of harm, including forced displacement of Indigenous people, poisoned rivers used for drinking water, labor rights abuses, and sexual abuse of women and girls by foreign workers.

The millions of people a year who suffer these types of abuses have few options for recourse. Those who most need access to justice often face the greatest barriers to information, have the least political power and the fewest financial resources, and lack the support required to seek it. Accountability Counsel exists to bridge these barriers for communities and create accountability in global finance resulting in systemic change. Accountability Counsel works to hold nearly $12 trillion a year accountable to global human rights and environmental standards.

Since partnering with DataKind in 2018 there have been many changes in the world, how has the Accountability Counsel’s priorities shifted and what accomplishments are you most proud of to date?

Given both the immediate need to bolster global capacity to respond to the coronavirus crisis and the long history of disaster response causing more harm than good, Accountability Counsel works to ensure that expediency does not come at the cost of transparency and social and environmental due diligence, particularly consultation with affected communities. Skimping on these early steps is often at the root of harm in a project and the first place where well-intended efforts go wrong.

While no other method can be nearly as effective as in-person engagement, we have been developing innovative community engagement tools to conduct sufficient consultations during a pandemic without putting lives at risk.

Faced with the need to communicate with farmers dispersed across rural northern Haiti, Accountability Counsel’s research team developed Zwazo, a flexible surveying tool built on the Twilio API that enables community feedback and fosters access to information. Since its creation in early 2019, our team and partner organizations have used Zwazo to communicate in real time with client communities facing environmental and human rights abuses, even in areas with no internet access, limited adult literacy, and low smartphone adoption rates. Messages or questions can be distributed as text, WhatsApp, or voice messages, allowing recipients to respond either with keypresses or by recording a verbal response when prompted. This adaptable functionality allows for rapid, locally-grounded two-way communication tailored to the needs of communities and their advocates.

What makes Zwazo unique is not the technology itself, but its community-driven nature. Zwazo infuses Twilio’s framework with local grassroots expertise developed over a decade advocating alongside communities harmed by internationally financed projects. Accountability Counsel built the system in close consultation with community partners in Haiti and around the world, and continues to build on its functionality. It is now a critical component of a broader structure of outreach, consultation, communication, and transparency that Accountability Counsel brings to all its cases.

As Accountability Counsel looks to the future, what is the thinking around the role of data science to support your mission? Where do you see the opportunity and potential? Where do you hold caution?

As we continue to grow, Accountability Counsel uses data across our research, advocacy, and community support work. Identifying trends, bottlenecks, and accountability gaps have allowed us to function more effectively, and to bolster our advocacy with hard data to demonstrate the ways that institutions can and should be more transparent, accessible, and accountable. Our latest report on the accountability gap in the Middle East and North Africa is only the latest example. 

In a field that lacks significant data science capabilities, presenting nuanced analysis can be a powerful motivator for change. But it's important to remember that at the end of the day, "data" is simply the aggregation of stories, and each of those stories represents a complex lived experience with near infinite contributing factors. Without a meaningful grounding in these communities and their struggles, poorly applied data science has the potential to do more harm than good. It is never a replacement for thoughtful engagement with subjective realities, but works best as a way to compare, analyze, and identify collective truths from those individual experiences. 

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From your experience, what does a social impact organization need to have in place in order to be able to successfully engage in using data for mission impact?

The two factors I would consider most important for any social impact organization hoping to engage with data are as follows:

  1. Have the infrastructure and expertise in place to properly and effectively engage with the data, produce nuanced and appropriate models, and properly grapple with the inherent limitations of big data
  2. For organizations hoping to develop and maintain databases, make sure you have the capability not only to create the dataset, but also to sustain it. It's a lot of work keeping information accessible and up to date, and the systems in which that data is stored also need regular upgrading and maintenance. Don't just look at the initial costs, but consider the resources required to maintain and update the information for a lifetime.

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Samer Araabi joined Accountability Counsel as Research Director in 2017. He leads the organization’s work to inform the movement for transparency and accountability in international finance through data collection and analysis, qualitative research, and emerging technology tools.

Header photo credit: Samer Araabi, Accountability Counsel. Header photo caption: Representatives of the kolektif of Haitian farmers using Accountability Counsel's voice messaging system to reach out to beneficiaries. 

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