Being an ombud through the eyes of an IMF maestro

23 October 2023 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 3 min.
Ombuds Day was observed on 12 October.
Ombuds Day was observed on 12 October.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) heard from International Monetary Fund (IMF) ombudsman, Dr Thomas Zgambo, on Ombuds Day, observed on 12 October, during a virtual conversation where he unpacked some of his work experience.

The Malawi-born Dr Zgambo has previously held positions at Polaroid, Coca-Cola, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the World Bank.

Being an ombud for nearly three decades, he initially struggled with maintaining a healthy work–life balance, often taking “problems home” with him. However, he soon realised that those problems remain those of the people coming to him, and that his job was to provide a solution.

“You must be patient in searching for … solutions, so that it doesn’t just serve one interest, but something that may prevent the problem from occurring again while preserving the relationship of the parties involved in the conflict. There is a need to analyse and to understand.”

Additional obstacles he has had to contend with in his long career include working at international organisations, which tend to have different laws that govern each stream of accountability, be it labour laws or internal rules.


“The role of Human Resources has evolved and that has made a big difference in need and role of the ombud.”

He said: “In academia, it takes a long time to take decisions because it requires a lot of discussion because you often deal with things that require systems change; and in government, owing to strict rules, managers are afraid to make decisions. They believe in collective decision-making. There are investigations, which lead to findings and that leads to a decision having to be made.”

Zgambo will be retiring in a few months, and he does so having made key observations.

“A lot more organisations have organisational, classical and executive ombuds you find in different locations. Changes have owed to updates in employment law and workplace demographics. The role of Human Resources has evolved and that has made a big difference in the need and role of the ombud,” he said.

Humanising institutions

UCT’s ombud, Nashira Abrahams, explained the role of an ombud: “Ombuds services humanise institutions for many constituents. The existence of an ombud’s office sends the message that the institution cares about its people and recognises the value of providing informal dispute resolution for members of the campus community.

“My independence results in a position unlike that of any other UCT staff member. Furthermore, my role demands that I remain true to what has been brought to my office. On this special day, let us celebrate the invaluable role of ombuds in promoting fairness, justice, and transparency. May our dedication to resolving conflicts, upholding ethics, and ensuring accountability continue to make a positive impact in the lives of many.”

Zgambo said: “What ties an ombud’s role together is the humanity: understanding you are dealing with people,” he said. “Dealing with visitors and providing feedback to senior management created a tendency to act prematurely because there’s a concern that the reputation of the organisation might be affected, so your understanding of that organisation’s culture is beneficial.”

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