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.
Check-out the one-minute video before delving deeper into the must-do-actions to demonstrate the behaviour needed to establish trust and build relationships. Without trust and good relationships the likelihood of success (for the business generally and for community-facing activities in particular) is greatly reduced:
- Only make promises you can keep: We all see the world differently and it is easy for intentions to be misunderstood. A common cause, some say it is the most common cause, of breakdowns between companies and communities is the failure of one or the other or both to deliver on commitments that have been made or that are perceived to have been made. Phrases like ‘I will think about it’, ‘I will discuss that with my boss’ or ‘I’m sure you will benefit from us being here’ can easily be taken out of context and considered to be a promise. There are some tried and tested actions you can use to reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding. First up is thinking carefully about the words you choose to use before you open your mouth. You could avoid putting yourself in situations that require impulsive answers. You could resist the temptation to answer every question and only give answers you are certain about. You could take a few minutes to check you have been understood by the other person. Lastly, you could explain what you and your company defines a commitment to be.
- Proactively build relations: When you maintain open, regular and ongoing contact with communities, it signals your respect for people’s ideas, trust that communities will constructively engage with you in problem solving and concern for how your company’s actions affect local people’s lives. This does not mean that you must accept every idea the community puts forward, rather it is about having an open, vigorous, and honest exchange and each party following through on commitments made.
- Respond to questions, concerns and complaints: Responding to community questions, concerns and complaints is essential for good relations. This means answering when you can but remembering that it is okay to say “I don’t know” or “I need to check with my boss before I can answer that”. If you do need to defer your answer it is critical that you do follow up and respond within the agreed timeframe. Delivering a promised response is a demonstration that you and the company are trustworthy. Ensuring that every question is answered promptly and politely, either in meetings or in letters is seen to be respectful and interested. Ensuring communities have easy and safe access to ask questions and receive responses signal good intent and show that you believe that your company can constructively engage with local people about difficult issues. Having a clear, easily understood process to address complaints is a way to build local trust and a common understanding of issues. It can help to detect local concerns at an early stage rather than leaving them unresolved with the potential to escalate. It will send a signal that the company will respond to well-founded complaints fairly and sensitively but will not consider or settle claims that have no basis. It is also the right and responsible thing to do and is another example where putting yourself in the shoes of others can be a useful source of insight. Establishing a grievance procedure demonstrates to local communities that you respect their right to hold you accountable for your behaviour and your impacts and provides one of the most effective tools for dealing with local concerns in a non-violent manner.
- Participate in community life: Communities in most places say that one aspect of establishing good relations with a company has to do with seeing company people outside the confines of offices and compounds. When managers and other company staff are seen around town, walk through villages and along streets, sit in cafes and have a chat with local people or stop to talk and ask about how things are going, community members are appreciative. These actions are translated as being neighbourly and respectful and trusting.
- Learn and follow local protocols: One simple way to work out how your company and your staff should behave in a new culture is by asking local people what is important to them. A discussion about appropriate behaviour sends the signal that you are trying to respect local customs, rules and protocols. When your employees and contractors are seen to be honouring local customs on a regular basis, the signal of respect is reinforced. Some companies train their international and national staff (who often come from different parts of the country where customs may be different) in local context awareness, including cross-cultural communication, as part of their orientation. Some companies use local elders to provide such training. When word gets around that you are serious about learning this kind of knowledge local people feel that this shows respect.
- Ask for permission (don’t take, don’t assume): We make assumptions all the time. Sometimes they are reasonable, sometimes they are wrong. Risk is associated with wrong assumptions. The simple way to avoid wrong assumptions is to ask.
- Compensate before damage: Accessing land and land-use change is key issue on many sites. Compensation for damage and the displacement and resettlement of communities is a challenging experience for all concerned and often leads to conflict over the right to land and its use. It is important to remember that “a farmer’s field is the most important thing he has in life” and that concern for land always goes beyond the simple monetary value. Ensuring farms and other community lands are not be entered without permission from the landowner(s) or/and land-user(s) is one example of appropriate behaviour. Where compensation is due ensuring the required payment is made before access is permitted is another. Perhaps one of the best ways to think about this is to ask yourself “what if this was happening to me? What thoughts might you have at the moment you are told you have to give up your home and your livelihood?
- Pay bills on time: In many places the local suppliers are small enterprises and they often need to implement new processes and learn new skills to bring them to the operational, safety, environmental and technical standards required by companies. To make these changes they often need to borrow money (notwithstanding that companies may provide support / assistance / grants / loans). Payment for services sits on the other side of the ledger – where local businesses need to change from a cash-based system to one where payment for goods and services is made days, weeks and months after the cost is incurred. In both cases, the cost of working capital for local companies – the interest rate they are charged on short-term borrowings – is high and late payment can be a local business killer.
- Hire locally whenever locals can do the work: Jobs provide an important opportunity for local people to directly benefit from company activities. They are one of the biggest contributions a company makes to the local economy and can help to strengthen the relationship with host communities. However, issues surrounding jobs often become a major source of tension, particularly when local people see outsiders being hired for jobs they think they can do or feel they are entitled to, turning what should be a positive into a negative. Perceptions of unfairness, recruitment practices that are difficult to understand (think complex process, language barriers) and difficult to access (think on-line recruitment systems) and disparity of expectations often lead to jobs becoming one of the biggest sources of community complaints. Too much attention on the company as the provider of jobs and not enough on the company as creator of employability opportunities adds to the pressure.
- No free services (without an exit plan): The reality is that for most projects the benefits that come from job and business opportunities fall to a relatively small proportion of the population, usually those with better education and better connections. For the majority of community members local development is the one broadly distributed benefit they might see. Community and government pressure to “help” and a natural tendency for feeling that helping those you might think of as being less fortunate is “the right thing to do” often lead to a temptation to do something quickly to relieve pressure and to live up to a self-image. While this is understandable, you need to resist the instant gratification of a quick fix and move away from "giving stuff" and providing hand-outs which create dependency and start to take on the bigger challenge of building capabilities and developing a sense of ownership and accountability. It is also essential that you and your company not to fall into the trap of over-promising and under-delivering and turning what should be a positive into a long-term liability.