For remote projects in the least developed countries, obtaining accurate, credible social impact assessments can be challenging. One of our environmental scientists shares lessons from their experience assessing social impact in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
The great thing about bringing infrastructure projects to people living in poverty is the opportunity to make a material difference to local lives. Sometimes, in areas torn by civil conflict, projects themselves can act as instruments of peace, building a bridge between governments and ethnic minorities whose common interest in the economic uplift can help to maintain stability.
I have a keen interest in sustainable development and, so, helping improve livelihoods is what drew me to the international development space. A project I was involved in was assessing the social impact of a proposed hydropower plant in rural Myanmar. It’s hoped the project will create peace between an ethnic minority group and the government, as well as provide electricity to rural villages, strengthen the resilience of communities and grow a regional economy.
A key lesson from my work on this project was that effective social impact assessments can assist a project in radically improving quality of life; for example, by bringing power or running water to villages for the first time. Sometimes, mitigation outcomes can result in community agreements whereby project owners build mini solar grids or drill boreholes to supply utilities to nearby communities. Some projects may also give subsistence farmers access to new jobs, giving communities stable income sources that can lift local economies out of poverty.
Providing these project benefits requires an understanding of how communities live. Subsequently, it’s important to discern how people may be negatively impacted by the construction and operation of the project so that these impacts can be reduced. Without thoroughly assessing the negative impacts, any potential social benefits the project may bring will be worthless.
Understanding how rural communities may be impacted and crafting effective mitigation options takes time and is a very different process from negotiating with clued-in urban residents. Carefully planned and inclusive community engagement is the key to a robust social impact assessment.
From my experience, it inevitably requires the following.
If you’re undertaking an international project on a fly-in/fly-out basis, it’s critical to have a local office or consulting partner to do the leg work when you can’t. You may have promised the community you’ll be back in two months, but unexpected road-blocks can arise. If you can’t do what you said you’d do, you need someone on the ground to make contact for you and continue the work until you can get back in the country.
Even if you have a local office, they may not have every skill you need. For example, you need a translator who knows the area you’re going into. Their role is not just to translate words – but also meaning. You’ll often work with communities who’ve rarely or never engaged with outsiders. Your translator needs to be someone the village can build trust with over time – someone who can tell you the emotion behind people’s words. Are they frightened, uncertain or sceptical? Make sure your translator understands you’re not looking for the ‘right’ answer. You actually want to know how the local community feels about the project – even if it’s negative. Try to uncover people’s expectations, anxieties and any causes of social tension. Otherwise it’s hard to accurately assess the social, spiritual, cultural and environmental impact on the village of planned development activities.
Effective community engagement and social assessment always takes longer than you think. Start as early as possible in the planning phases of a development, allowing for extensive consultation to ensure communities understand what’s at stake and have a chance to explain their position. You’re not just looking at potential negative impacts on critical natural resources, like water and forests. Will the project touch on cultural resources, such as sacred sites? People often need time to take in information and process it before coming back with responses. You may need to have several conversations about the same issue.
People often want to help but physically don’t have the time. Be mindful that your interviewees need vast tracts of time to simply live. It can take subsistence farmers hours and hours gathering enough for their family to eat, and carrying the day’s water from the well. You may have planned a mapping exercise at the end of the meeting with 10 people. Don’t be surprised if only two people have time to stay behind. You have to be flexible, adaptable and considerate.
Be aware of not just local cultures but also what the village has been through. For many, being consulted is a novel concept. If no one has ever asked your opinion before, it can take time to open up and trust the strangers in front of you. Tell them you’re just there to learn. You want to understand what they think and what they’d like to see done better.
Be careful with your questions. People don’t always want to talk directly about past conflicts or land mine injuries. Start with a broad brush: “Tell me about the history of the village”. Ask indirect questions: “Does anyone have any mobility issues?” People sometimes want to show a strong front, so they may not tell you about issues within the village, especially more vulnerable groups such as women. Health clinics within the villages and towns are an invaluable source to find out about any gender issues, potential mental health problems, violence or substance abuse.
Don’t rely on local census data. It’s often wildly inaccurate, especially for remote rural areas. You’re better off gathering your own data – even if that comes down to asking village leaders and counting heads! There’s always a workaround.
Community engagement in a developing, rural area was a new and enriching experience for me; gaining exposure to diverse cultures and a different way of working. Getting out of the office and meeting people who may be impacted by a project face-to-face is humbling and enlightening.
Even if people start out being sceptical, your genuine interest and gentle questions will eventually win their trust. It’s enormously rewarding when you’re welcomed into the community – and you can start facilitating an agreement that will help to improve quality of life for everyone you’ve been talking to.