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 am hoping this blog will achieve something similar – the regular, free and open sharing of ideas and experiences. Time will tell how well it works out.

Year end reflections on Ghana

Company Behaviour |  23 December 2020

I went to Ghana as part of a team planning to build a new mine. I had been working on the studies and design work for the company's Ghana projects for five years so I was very familiar with the project but not particularly familiar with Ghana which I had visited only three times, two of those being very short project kick-off trips. I was also a complete community novice, with this being my first overseas assignment so, perhaps not surprisingly, I made plenty of mistakes. What follows is a look back on some of the processes we put in place and the results we saw in three important areas.

At different times we were operating right across the land access spectrum from low disturbance / temporary access exploration to planning for permanent (or at least very long term) access for construction and operations. The discovery work on the main deposit had been done before I arrived with ten years of stop / start activity by three different companies, but we were still doing infill drilling on the main deposit and district and regional level exploration looking for incremental tonnes and at the same time getting set to acquire nearly 2,000ha of agricultural land for the project. So maybe not surprisingly user rights and land access were very much on the radar.

LAND ACCESS

It didn’t take long after arriving to realise that the community wasn’t very enamoured with us. By way of a few examples, drill rigs were being blocked; one community had petitioned the local MP to stop us working and we had more than 150 outstanding complaints related to compensation payments. It took a bit of time – and some help from an experienced and independent eye - to realise that by far the biggest contributor to our difficulties was our own behaviour:

  • We didn’t have a good process for making sure the right person got paid. Those that did get paid didn’t receive any detail that would let them work out if they had been paid the right amount.
  • The farmers had very little say in determining the compensation rates they would receive.
  • Farmers were not always notified before we went onto their farms to count crops so they could not be sure we had done the count correctly, or even if we had actually been on their farm.
  • We didn’t have a process for dealing with complaints, so concerns just sat festering for years.

Hopefully you get the picture. Clearly this wasn't right and couldn’t go on – we had to change and we did:

  • We made a rule – no permission / no entry
  • We made another rule – no payment / no work – meaning that we would not carry out work that caused damage until we had paid compensation. Not just calculated the amount or had the money in our bank account, but that the farmer had the cash in his hand.
  • We committed to a negotiated compensation process which focused on mutual gains which took significant time and resources and was a severe strain on relationships at times but it was worth it in the end with recognition within the community that the process led to rates which were fair as well as building trust in the company’s approach.
  • We put a grievance process in place – and over time - as we investigated, we found that +90% of the legacy complaints were real.

CONSULTATION

One of my early tasks was to prepare for the government mandated Public Hearing, which forms part of the permit approvals process. From memory it happened 4 or 5 months after I arrived. As you might have guessed from our land access history, we didn’t exactly have a lot of community support at the time – and as we found out much to our cost - no community support meant no environmental permit. Over the next three years we ramped up our public consultation process, establishing a broad-based approach using multiple venues. I won’t go through all of them but I would like to touch on three:

I mentioned the large number of grievances going back several years. At the start, the community didn’t trust us to do the right thing so we kicked off by using a quasi-government human rights agency – CHRAJ – to investigate the 150 legacy cases and recommend actions. We also gave an undertaking to abide by any final ruling from CHRAJ. In parallel we set up our own grievance team to handle all new cases and over time built enough trust that CHRAJ refused to look at new community complaints unless they had first been raised with the company and investigated through our internal processes. For me, the grievance procedure was one of the keys to building community support – we were seen as being prepared to be held accountable for our impacts, the process was very open and easily understood and we were seen to be actively following up on every complaint.

Next, the information offices, which turned into a major success. We did this by renting local shop-fronts in each of the 8 local communities and having them staffed at regular and widely communicated times. We wanted to make it easy for community members to contact the company and they became well used drop-in centres. One very popular activity was viewing the videos of consultative and negotiating committee meetings, which was a great way to make sure community members saw what was going on, what was being said, how their representatives were behaving / performing / contributing.

The last one to mention is the internal briefings. We quickly came to realise that the community doesn’t start outside the gate and that our employees and our contractor employees were a captive, easily accessible and influential stakeholder group. We made sure they were well-informed and we also used them as sounding boards to try out new ideas and tried to learn from their insights and to understand and make use of their connections.

Ultimately we hosted more than 500 meetings (and countless informal chats, discussions, drinks, funerals and home visits) involving over 9,000 individuals across a wide social spectrum including Government Ministers, MPs, local government administrators, traditional authorities, opinion leaders, business groups, religious groups, farmers and youth. (These last two being the most directly impacted).

The end result was an overwhelming expression of community support in the lead up to and during the new Public Hearing and the subsequent granting of the Environmental Permit.

So, onto the third element.

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

At the time we were still in the pre-final investment decision phase, and not having particular community development skills in-house we made a decision to work with a local NGO. We also worked out that we needed to put a strong focus on debunking the misconceptions that we were the centre of the universe, or that we had unlimited access to money or had all the answers.

One of local communities asked us to build them 3-classrooms which we worked out would cost about $100,000 by the time it complied with all our internal health and safety and procurement rules, $100,000 we didn’t have. In the meantime, another community used a small cash donation we had made to their annual harvest festival fund-raising as their contribution to an NGO-run school building program and turned $1,000 into their own 3-classroom building, which they built in only 100 days. After seeing this community-driven success we increased our efforts to bring all the local communities together for some peer-to-peer learning.

One takeaway for me from this experience was the realisation that local communities can be extremely resourceful and creative and that they have a better idea of how to get value out of every dollar than I ever will. This may not be a surprise for anyone with an international development background but it was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ moment for me.

Being a rural area, farming was the basis of most livelihoods so we placed a strong focus on “growing” better farmers, helping people get better at what they already did rather than trying to turn farmers into business people. Through our NGO partner we developed a cadre of model farmers (another example of using peer-to-peer education) who could tell their own stories of the benefits of improved cropping and animal husbandry practices. We also worked with the government agricultural extension officers to understand what resources they needed to do their job rather than taking it over. And we supported the annual National Farmers Day celebrations – tying into a government run event which showcased the national and local pride in agricultural excellence. A linked up approach if you like – grassroots to government. This approach also built on the strengths of our NGO partner and it has to be said we were fortunate that their local manager was a well-respected farmer himself.

A third area which also received quite a bit of effort from us was the local governance aspect, working with the NGO partner and a quasi-government agency to provide basic training such as how to participate in a committee meeting, responsibilities of local government / community representatives and the role of local government in district development.Something we found out at the same time was that our own team had very little idea how these processes worked so we put them through the same training, alongside the community members. This provided another shared learning opportunity and I think it also helped to show that we did not see ourselves as being better or smarter than other members of the community.

The last area we focused on was building a positive community outlook – trying to encourage a glass half full / grasp the opportunity attitude.

We had a very self-centred reason for taking this approach, believing as we did that success for our business was intimately linked to the ability of our local communities to develop and grow and that success would only come if we worked with local people and local government to identify and implement ideas and actions that would ensure that they would be better off as a result of us operating in their backyard.

LESSONS LEARNED

So to close – a few of the lessons that have stayed with me and continue to shape the way I think about managing community relations.

  1. Most community related problems are self-inflicted – land access, employment, procurement are all company driven activities that have the potential to have good and bad results. Our poor early practices came back to haunt us big time but we managed to turn things around by changing the way we worked. The unfortunate reality is that turning things around take time so it makes sense to invest a little effort and being a bit smarter up front. As we all know, prevention is better than cure.
  2. Never underestimate the importance of community support... and never take it for granted. The social licence ebbs and flows and needs ongoing attention to keep it on the rails.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change... there is nothing wrong with changing employment criteria or the rules around community development. The important thing is to avoid bullshit, blame and spin and to honestly explain why the changes are needed and ideally to involve the affected people in the discussion and development of the new rules or program or whatever.
  4. First impressions do matter but.people are forgiving of mistakes if they see you are trying to do things the right way
  5. Try and see through the eyes of others... we are all shaped by our own experiences, and we all develop biases and habits which is only natural however we're not always so good at recognising the baggage we carry. It should never be about right and wrong but about similarities and differences and finding ways to take advantage of both.
  6. There is no ‘magic bullet’... no single ‘can – should – must-do’ action that will fix everything. It is about the cumulative effect of often small actions
  7. If in doubt - ask!... It seems intuitive but how many times do we sit in isolation in our offices and dream up all sorts of theories when the simplest way to understand what is important to someone or how they feel about something or what they think of an idea is to sit down face to face and have a chat.

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