The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™

Relationship difficulties

By Rob Foulkes

A new book on building strong relations with local communities contains excellent advice – albeit it may not help those who need it most

Building local trust needs an inclusive approach

‘Getting it Right: Making Corporate-Community Relations Work’ by Luc Zandvliet and Mary B. Anderson (2009). Greenleaf Publishing Ltd., 240 pages, $45.

At energy and mining projects around the world, managers often strive to foster constructive, or at least non-hostile, relations with local people affected by their operations. But too often, good intentions do not translate into broad-based support. Luc Zandvliet and Mary Anderson’s new book takes this dilemma as its starting point, asking what goes wrong and how it can be put right. No doubt many managers will welcome the authors’ efforts to provide clear guidance in this area.

‘Getting it Right’ is based on years of research at extractive operations around the world, and the authors take a balanced, practical and jargon-free tone well suited to their corporate audience. The book opens with a section exploring the assumptions and dynamics that may cause problems across three broad aspects of corporate-community interaction: distributing benefits, corporate behaviour and a project’s unintended side effects. The main body is devoted to detailed discussions of several common points of contention, from compensation policy to NGO engagement. These chapters highlight the kinds of company actions and community assumptions that can undermine a good relationship, and suggest approaches to avoiding or overcoming these pitfalls.

The book is perhaps most valuable in terms of the overarching perspectives it attempts to impart to managers: that ‘community relations’ activities are not the only, or even the most powerful, drivers of local perceptions of a project (for example, the impact of actual business operations on communities inevitably can be far more important); that an inclusive and respectful process of engagement is often more valuable than generous community investments made unilaterally by the company; and that all aspects of a company’s operations which affect its ‘license to operate’, from government relations to security policy, are better addressed as elements of a coherent strategy than through ad hoc fire-fighting. If managers were able to fully take these principles on board, much local opposition could no doubt be avoided.

An equation for relationships?

At the same time, any besieged operational manager who picks up the book hoping for a miracle cure is unlikely to be satisfied. The authors do not set out to provide clear-cut instructions or detailed answers; rather the aim is to prompt managers to ask the right questions. For example, in their discussion of distributing benefits, they make the important point that local perceptions of ‘fairness’ should be taken into account, but it is left up to the manager to discover exactly what those perceptions are. The authors are right to avoid detailed prescriptions – corporate-community relations are after all necessarily context-specific, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions – but those managers most in need of help might be hoping for more concrete guidance.

This highlights an inherent challenge for a book seeking to improve interpersonal relations. A company is likely to build support only if its staff are respectful and empathetic and willing to view their own behaviour from the perspective of local communities (‘Personalities count!’, in the authors’ words). ‘Getting it Right’ will help such people think through their interactions with communities, but these are managers who likely are already much of the way there. For those managers who struggle to empathise with local concerns it is questionable whether this book – or any other – can really help, despite the authors’ claim that ‘respect, trust and caring’ can be institutionalised as standard operating procedures.

Much of the book is also pitched at a level which assumes relatively little cross-cultural experience: the authors highlight, for example, the (one might think) obvious points that respect is reciprocal and that culturally significant sites should be honoured. If the authors are right that such basics are not already widely understood, their book is all the more necessary and likely to be read – but equally this does not bode well for a swift ending of corporate-community tensions.

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