Smart Lawyer Becomes People’s Hero: Holding Corporations To Account

Imagine you live in a remote village in a poor, developing nation, and you learn that the World Bank and a large private corporation are planning a dam project that will submerge your village. You were not consulted about the project, nor offered resettlement. What do you do? One new option is to get in touch with Natalie Bridgeman, a determined young attorney in San Francisco who runs an extraordinary nonprofit: Accountability Counsel.

Accountability Counsel seeks to use, strengthen, and create accountability systems for local communities and international entities to ensure that social and environmental standards are met in international finance and development projects. In other words, Accountability Counsel holds corporations and multilateral development banks accountable for their effects on local communities and the environment. Natalie’s organization provides trainings, litigation, claim support and policy advocacy to equip those who are being victimized by unfettered development with the tools to hold the ‘developers’ to their human rights and environmental commitments. It may not be dramatic or sexy, but it’s the kind of grinding, quietly heroic work that gets results from the governmental and corporate bureaucracies that hold so much power.

Accountability Counsel received its official non-profit status in September and has hit the ground running on several projects.  Accountability Counsel co-authored a letter to the President of the World Bank Group regarding policy violations in the palm oil sector; at the Accountability Counsel launch party earlier this month, Natalie announced that the World Bank President agreed with the letter and changed World Bank policy as a result.

Accountability Counsel’s latest project involves helping Shipibo indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. An oil project operated by Maple Energy and supported by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation has caused four oil spills in 2009 alone.  These spills have polluted the water source in two communities and are exposing community members to harmful chemicals. In 2010, Natalie will travel to Peru to meet with indigenous leaders, community members and partner organizations to conduct a training and offer support in the communities’ efforts to gain redress.

Natalie Bridgeman founded Accountability Counsel after receiving an Echoing Green Fellowship, an international award for innovative social entrepreneurs granted to only 14 organizations world-wide in 2009.  Here is  a video of the 90-second pitch that won her the Fellowship:

In her interview with Echoing Green, Natalie explained how she found her path in this work during a college break while working for an environmental organization in Chile: “I traveled to the BioBio River where the indigenous Mapuche were protesting the illegal construction of a series of hydroelectric dams, which were displacing their villages and inundating their land. I stood a few feet away while the police tear gassed the eighty-year-old Mapuche women who were fighting for their community. I learned that the project was financed by an institution that used U.S. taxpayer money–that my country was funding this injustice. They implored me to help. There was no turning back from development accountability work after that.”

It’s common enough to make lawyer jokes, and some of the mockery is deserved. But sometimes people need a good lawyer–and Natalie Bridgeman and Accountability Counsel are on the right side.

You can support Accountability Counsel’s work or sign up for their newsletter here.

Photo: Natalie conducting a training in Hyderabad, India.
Used with permission.

71 comments

Jennifer F.

Hamilton Lawyers
Absolutely exceptional, brilliant stuff, I am much pleased while reading this.

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Nwabueze Nwokolo
Nwabueze Nwokolo8 years ago

Lawyers uphold the rule of law for the benefit of all of us. More of this kind of lawyer please!

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Pamela C.
Pamela C9 years ago

Its sad, but true: the only way to reason with conglomerates is to legally reach into their pockets. I imagine its quite a shock for them.

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Robert S.
Robert S9 years ago

She is a good person.

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Elizabeth C.
Elizabeth C9 years ago

Thank you so much for this article. It has made my day knowing that this lawyer is using her skills and knowledge to educate and inform members of communities who are powerless in the face of corporate interests. May she do well.

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Elaine Dixon
Elaine Dixon9 years ago

god bless her

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Mary Latela
Mary Latela9 years ago

It's inspiring to hear about someone who makes changes in far-off lands. However, I like to remember that I can make changes in my corner of the world, first by being awake and alert to needs, second by reflecting on how I can articulate the need for myself and my friends, and third, how I can roll up my sleeves and do something.

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Storm Rise
Storm Rise9 years ago

Thanks for the great story- and good on you Natalie for doing some amazing work. We get so much hope when we see wonderful people like you getting out there and using their education and smarts for the RIGHT reason... not just for profit, which is by far the more common sight!
We all behind you.... Way to go :-D

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Anne F.
Anne F9 years ago

Hooray for lawyers who work for what's right, rather than protecting corporate interests and feathering their own nests.

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Jennifer E.
Jennifer E9 years ago

Excellent model for every city and/or county to consider.

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