I first heard the words “meeting under the mango tree” as a euphemism for having a predictable, easy to access process for enabling community members to raise issues and concerns in a safe and familiar place. There is no fixed agenda and no one-size-fits-all for these exchanges. With one company we set up drop-in centres in each local village with a designated community officer in attendance everyday. Another made it known that a company person would be available “under the mango tree” for two hours every market day. I was hoping this blog would achieve something similar – the regular, free and open sharing of ideas and experiences. Three years on and it hasn't worked as I had hoped so I'm taking a long break and having a bit of a rethink. In the meantime I have reposted a "best of" selection.
Making the most of your first site visit
Responsible Business Management | 1 February 2022
If you're working on an overseas project and have never visited the site you'll be well served to make some pre-departure arrangements ahead of your first visit so that you can tick off the actions on your "what do I need to get out of my first visit checklist". Simple actions you can take that will set you up for a smooth(er) ride include:
- Visit your home-country Embassy. It is their job to help companies on their way and they should be able to provide advice on what is happening in the country, who are the real players and what are the local sensitivities.
- The Chamber of Mines and / or Chamber of Commerce can provide a look into the experiences of other companies, the legal framework for operating in the country and legislation related to exploration, land rights and land title.
- Schedule introductory meetings with key government departments. Planning, health, education and police are a good place to start, as is the head of local government. Provide some information about the project – it doesn’t need to be too specific, whatever the company is comfortable with sharing – and ask how they feel about the company and what they think the project will do for them. The more levels engaged with – national, regional and local – the better, but if time is short, focus at the local level for the first visit and expand the circle during subsequent visits.
- Connect with NGOs working in country and particularly any that are working locally. They generally have a good idea of local community dynamics and can provide a triangulation point for what the site team is saying. They could also be potential partners for social investment activities so it is worth starting early to understand where interests may overlap.
- Take a few hours to visit the local communities. Getting out of the car and walk around and talk with a cross section of people such as elders, business owners, women and youth. Asking them how they are. Listening to them. Being willing to sit down and talk. In conversations asking specifically, “What are the impacts on your life of the company being here? What are the pluses, the positive impacts for you? What are the downsides, the negative impacts that concern you? What do you suggest the company could do to make sure that it sustains the positives and begin to address some of these negatives?” Doing this sends the message that the company is not afraid of and distrustful of local people, that it wants to hear and learn from local ideas and that it respects the holders of those ideas and that it is willing to be held accountable for company impacts. Also, the company will probably hear some very important concerns and some surprisingly positive ideas. Many local people do have ideas and many of these contain elements of solutions that may not be imagined from inside the company office.
- Visit other operations to see how they address the various social aspects, what has worked for them and what has not worked.
- Look and listen for signs that indicate the quality of the company’s relationship with the local people. There are two simple ways to do a quick reality check. The first is to pay attention for changes in the tone of meetings with government agencies, partners and community members. If they are tense, unfriendly, demanding and accusations are flying about it isn’t hard to work out things are heading in the wrong direction. On the other hand, a friendly welcome and a sense of shared purpose say that you are doing okay. The second is to note behaviour and attitude you see happening in the community. Good signs include:
- New notices from the company remain on community noticeboards without being defaced;
- Low theft levels, little damage to company property;
- Small numbers of community incidents or complaints (with the caveat that you have an effective way for the community to raise concerns);
- People associate improvements in their quality of life with the presence of the company;
- Outsiders campaigning on an anti-corporate platform (journalists, NGOs, politicians) get no local support;
- Community requests that benefit the community rather than individuals;
- Community requests that focus on personal life-skills development instead of demand for material things;
- No or little public outrage following accidents;
- Community members identify troublemakers and informs company staff about (security) rumours in the community;
- People say they have access to site management and say the company is responsive to their concerns;
- People waving back when greeted;
- Government officials publicly acknowledge that the company keeps them informed and has enabled them to be more effective;
- The government increases its social services presence in the local area;
- Government officials are present and are responsive to company and community requests;
- Civil servants say they feel respected in the community due to the company presence;
- The government includes the company in discussions around policy and regulation;
- Journalists highlight the benefits of the company presence;
- Credible NGO wish to be associated with the company;
- No advocacy NGO active in the local communities;
- Outside groups regard the company’s practices to be among the best.
Noting these same signs on repeat visits can help you to see trends over time - for better or worse - and is an easy way to get a feel for how your relationships with local people are travelling. If you are seeing the early signs that things are heading off the rails you are in a much better position to get back on track than would otherwise be the case.
When all is said and done, the more advice, views and ideas you can gather early on the better informed you’ll be and the less likely it is that you'll make costly mistakes. I've "been there done that" and believe me when I tell you that it is not a good place to be.
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