Despite best intentions, extractive companies often struggle to find constructive ways to engage with civil society. We assess global evidence on how to make relations with fervent opponents more civilised.
By Rob Foulkes, Senior Associate
The planning and approval of an extractive project is always a broth with many cooks. The idea that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should have a place in the kitchen – alongside companies, governments and directly affected communities – has long ceased to be novel or controversial. Many companies recognise, at least in their public statements, that local, national and international civil society groups can usefully help assess and mitigate a potential project’s social and environmental impacts, and that they have an important role holding governments and companies to account regarding their own responsibilities.
But for executives trying to get a new project off the ground, it can be easy to lose sight of this collaborative ideal. Companies often complain that their plans are attacked before they have had a chance to state their case, and that NGO opponents seek problems with no concern for solutions. Seeing their own efforts at engagement painted as disingenuous PR, and groups that talk to them portrayed as collaborationists, the temptation can be to put up the barricades and try to keep NGOs out of the process altogether.
Apart from the obvious risks that shutting out the opposition entails – many companies need look no further than their own histories to find projects undermined in part by unaddressed NGO opposition – such a reaction can miss important opportunities. The loudest, most critical voices rarely represent a consensus among civil society: in any situation there will be a range of groups with different positions, priorities and approaches, including those which want to engage with or even contribute to a project provided there is an appropriate opportunity for them. The challenge is to define a process that allows as broad a spectrum as possible to participate.
Increasingly, companies are looking for formal, institutional models of engagement to achieve this. Examples have included ‘dialogue tables’ in Peru and the scientific panels around the Pebble mining project in Alaska; the 2013 Standard of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) opens the possibility of using national multi-stakeholder groups as a broad platform for engagement on issues beyond revenue governance. In situations where the parties struggle to discuss sensitive issues constructively, putting a mutually agreed process around the relationship can be a useful first step.
Among the key considerations in designing a structured engagement process:
Understand the complexity of your stakeholders
An effective process needs to be tailored to the project’s specific circumstances and to the NGOs involved. What degree of extractive-sector expertise and experience do they have? Are they concerned about particular aspects of the project’s design, or about its development in general? Do they trust the government to take their views into account? Are they seeking to block the project or, having accepted it as inevitable, are they seeking to help shape it? Do they have any interest in an engagement process?
Meet on neutral ground
With any engagement initiated by a company, there will be an understandable suspicion that the process itself and the outcome on key questions will be determined by the company. Overcoming this scepticism is essential for securing broad participation, but it requires courage from the company’s leadership to surrender a degree of control on sensitive issues.
Some form of credible external facilitation may be essential, whether just an independent expert chair or a dedicated third-party secretariat. This role needs to be filled by someone respected by both sides and with a mandate to keep both the company and other participants in line. Their funding needs careful consideration: experts paid by the company may be seen to be compromised.
Ensuring a shared fact-base is equally sensitive, and participants need to have access to credible independent information. Again, company documentation may not be believed, however authoritative. Participants need to trust that the findings and decisions of the process will be acted on. Tracking mechanisms, such as an oversight panel or a system for participatory monitoring, can provide reassurance.
Establish a predictable and credible process
Suspicious counterparties are more likely to get involved in a process they understand and trust than one that seems ad hoc or poorly thought through. As mediators have found in situations from ceasefire diplomacy to corporate settlements, a lasting agreement can only be reached if both sides agree on the rules of engagement from the start.
When the Keystone Center, a mediation non-profit, was engaged to build a science-based consultation around the Pebble project, it put significant time and resources into the architecture, with expert panels convened on key issues. Although the consultation did not ultimately result in consensus, the robust process – in which everyone believed their position would be heard – was seen as one of the critical factors in securing broad participation. In other situations, including where parties have a lower level of technical expertise, a different process may be needed. But whatever the setting, success will depend on the process’ predictability, and the extent to which it addresses the issues that the parties see as material.
The process also needs to fit clearly with other (e.g. state-mandated) consultations, such as permitting or ESIA approval. Contradictory outcomes, or simply ‘engagement fatigue’, may mean that establishing a voluntary process in parallel to the regulatory requirements can confuse more than it clarifies. In some situations, however, it is precisely a lack of faith in the government process that makes an alternative channel for engagement necessary.
At times, it is the process as much as the substantive discussion that helps companies and civil society to build trust. A company’s demeanour can therefore be a critical success factor. If through the process the parties can demonstrate respect for each other’s positions and a genuine intention to engage, the key objective may be achieved before the final agreement is even drafted.