Getting community engagement right – making sure it is 'meaningful' – is critical to the social licence to operate for oil, gas and mining projects. Government and industry responsibilities in this respect are equally important.
The term 'meaningful' now appears in international standards including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the World Bank Safeguard Policies. The OECD recently produced due diligence guidance on 'meaningful stakeholder engagement in the extractive sector'.
In the light of all this global interest, a new study from IIED explores what 'meaningful community engagement' means to different people, the potential for improving current practice, and priorities for further research.
Based on interviews with NGOs, researchers, government and industry, and a multi-stakeholder workshop, this scoping study was aimed at stakeholder groups – specifically those people trying to identify and address current gaps in the understanding and practice of meaningful community engagement.
What did we find out?
Our findings indicate that, despite advances in debate and practice, community engagement processes still frequently go wrong – and people perceive processes as not being meaningful.
We identified a wide range of perspectives on what makes community engagement meaningful. These frequently aligned with the emerging definitions of 'meaningful' in international guidelines (e.g. representative, inclusive and fair processes). Respondents suggested that community engagement should incorporate discussion of project risks and impacts, as well as long-term partnerships and the negotiation of benefits.
Standards and indicators typically focus on process and content, but there has been much less systematic thinking around what outcomes make community engagement meaningful and how to measure their value. Desired outcomes range from mutual trust, to community consent, to equitable benefit sharing, to ensuring competing rights and interests are incorporated into development planning. A key question is how can these diverse goals be achieved and evaluated?
Our respondents reinforced the importance of addressing several well-known challenges in making community engagement meaningful, including the need for senior level leadership; integrating consultation principles throughout the company and the value chain; and building capacity in government, companies and civil society to participate in or run engagement processes effectively.
Questions of emotion
Our research also raised some intriguing and less well-understood issues. For example, what is the role of emotion in stakeholder engagement?
Some may argue that over-emotional debates, based on a poor grasp of the facts, or 'fired up' by the media, can undermine a more meaningful and constructive discussion. Yet companies and governments also need to accept that public engagement on extractive industry projects is often highly emotional, and they need to develop the social skills and emotional intelligence to engage effectively with the public.
The issue of payment to participate in a consultation poses another challenge. People need to have their costs covered for taking part, and may need an incentive to attend when they have so many other claims on their time.
But payment can influence trust in the outcomes of the consultation, for example if some community members are receiving money to participate while others refuse to be involved as a matter of principle. And what happens if payment for consultation starts to be perceived as a rightful benefit from a project?
Frequently consultation processes are affected by complex politics and vested interests for and against a project at various levels. A key challenge is how to understand and manage these influences.
Our respondents also emphasised the need for more understanding of the specifics of community engagement in conflict and post-conflict situations. In such contexts levels of trust among different sectors of society may be very low, while community engagement opportunities may be extremely limited or might rely on military support or the involvement of UN agencies.
What did we conclude?
The IIED study identifies seven success factors for meaningful community engagement and offers recommendations and research priorities relating to each of these. Our respondents observed the need for more (focused) guidance particularly for governments and civil society.
They noted that greater willingness on the part of ALL stakeholders to talk about and learn from failure as well as success will enhance understanding and capacities for problem solving. Multi-stakeholder spaces such as the IIED workshop can help to explore some of the identified challenges.
And we need more solid evidence, including case studies of practical experience in particular contexts and comparative analysis across case studies, in order to justify additional investment in making community engagement meaningful.
Dr Emma Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent researcher and consultant based in London.
This is an open-ended study and IIED looks forward to following up with anyone interested in taking the debate or the research agenda forward. Contact: