Asian Ombudsman Association Regional Conference

Keynote Address by Bindu N. Lohani, ADB Vice President, at the 5th Regional EST Forum in Asia - A New Decade in Sustainable Transport on Asia 2010-2020: The Decade of Sustainable Transport in Asia and the Role of the Asian Development Bank

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am pleased to welcome all of you to the Asian Development Bank and to this conference. With such an impressive line–up of experts, we can look forward to fruitful and interesting discussions.

For the past two years, ADB has been working closely with the Asian Ombudsman Association, or AOA, to strengthen its important regional role in facilitating capacity building and knowledge sharing among its members. This conference highlights the achievements of this productive partnership.

The conference theme — Strengthening the Ombudsman Institution in Asia — is very timely and provides us a unique opportunity to discuss the expanding role of ombudsmen in ensuring good governance in the region.

The ombudsman is a growing institution in Asia, and it plays a vital role. In the past few years, we have witnessed the contribution of ombudsmen in redressing grievances, ensuring accountability of government officials, and improving public administration. Today and tomorrow, you will take a closer look at these mandates with the goal of strengthening the ombudsman as an important institution.

The concept of an ombudsman is not new in Asia. Although the origin of the modern ombudsman can be traced back some 300 years ago in Sweden, comparable institutions had already been in existence in Asian civilization, long before the term "ombudsman" became popular.

Countries practicing Islam, for instance, had "Mohtasibs" in ancient times who visited cities, towns, and marketplaces on a daily basis. They ensured that officials acted correctly and morally, and that customers were not cheated in market transactions. They resolved disputes and had the power to reverse official orders they deemed unjust.1

The 14th century Joseon Dynasty of Korea had the "sinmoongo" — the drum of justice — outside the palace, which the people could use to report injustice. The "sinmoongo" is said to be one of the earliest systems for handling complaints against the government and giving the people a say in government affairs.2 There have been many such institutions and arrangements in many other parts of the Asia and Pacific region.

These ancient mechanisms have evolved into what is generally referred to now as the ombudsman — an independent and non–partisan office, whose basic mandate is to secure justice by giving complainants redress against maladministration. This important function has transformed the institution, into one where ordinary citizens can have a voice and get recourse on problems in public administration.

Ombudsmanship, however, is not just about grievance redress, which is a reactive function. The mandates of the ombudsman go beyond addressing individual complaints. The ombudsman has come to assume an important role that is related to improving public administration.

The various roles that ombudsmen perform help governments become more effective. While governments' effectiveness can be ascribed to several factors, the offices of ombudsman, by the nature of its functions and mandate, can play a significant role in ensuring accountability and transparency.

Along with access to quality public services and improvement of public administration, accountability and transparency, are key components of good governance. Good governance is crucial to poverty reduction and economic growth, and is one of the five drivers of change under ADB's long–term strategic framework, Strategy 2020.3

Strategy 2020 also highlights regional cooperation as one of ADB's five strategic priorities. The AOA has emerged as a key regional partner in good governance, with a strong commitment to promoting the concept of ombudsmanship. Through the AOA, regional ombudsmen have a formal platform for cooperation, which is reflected in international conferences on key emerging issues, workshops, capacity building programs, and knowledge sharing.

For the next two days, you will hear from the experts here on a range of issues. Studies supported by ADB and interactions among member institutions have resulted in the identification of important best practice principles. These have now been developed into a set of core principles on Asian ombudsmanship, and will be presented tomorrow for ratification by AOA members.

Agreeing on common principles on ombudsmanship will be a challenge, but an important direction towards improved service delivery. Asia's vast diversity in cultures, governments, and socio–economic conditions should not hamper us in arriving at a consensus. We are, after all, united in our goal of ensuring good governance through effective ombudsmanship. ADB looks forward to supporting the implementation of these new principles in AOA member countries, where we are working closely with governments to improve public accountability.

In closing, I would like to thank all of you for contributing your knowledge and experience to this dialogue on an issue of much relevance for Asia today, and I wish you the very best in this endeavor.

Thank you.

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1Website of the Office of the Ombudsman, Toronto City, http://www.ombudstoronto.ca/history-ombudsman.
2e-People : The People's Online Petition & Discussion Portal, http://www.epeople.go.kr/jsp/user/on/eng/intro01.jsp.
3Strategy 2020: The Long-Term Strategic Framework of the Asian Development Bank 2008—2020.