How to Improve Community Relations: a Case Study

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When Jennifer Burt Davis joined the Ambatovy project in Madagascar in September 2009, there were several challenges: instability in the country, community conflicts related to construction, and increasingly negative stakeholder perceptions of Ambatovy. However, the situation has improved dramatically since then, driven largely by Ambatovy’s willingness to engage in a process of continuous improvement, seeking input and advice from local stakeholders along the way. Through this process, Ambatovy’s dedicated professionals are finding win-win solutions using their efficient CSR management program to pave the way to better stakeholder management practices. Jennifer gratefully agreed to share some of her thoughts on the ‘ingredients’ that made the difference for Ambatovy.

Vincent Frigon: Can you describe the situation when you arrived in 2009?

Jennifer Burt Davis: When I started at Ambatovy as the CSR advisor in 2009, there were many challenges facing the Project and the country as a whole.  Prior to working with Ambatovy, I had worked for other entities in the country. This experience gave me a very useful “outsider’s” perspective on the communities’ concerns and expectations of Ambatovy. When I joined Ambatovy, the Project was in the middle of the construction phase. For the entire CSR team, this period was marked by constant “firefighting”, meaning our social agents were forced to deal with one crisis after another, and thus found it quite difficult to manage “over-the-horizon” risks that require taking a longer view. Communities became upset with the Project because they had high expectations and were only seeing impacts from construction and few of the benefits. The Project had done public consultations, but the documentation was spotty and difficult to locate. During this period, communications with communities were mostly transactional (e.g., the cost to replace land, a tree, etc.). Unfortunately, such an environment provided us few opportunities for real dialogue.

V.F.: How did you manage the situation?

J.B.D.: First, we engaged with several governmental and non-governmental organizations in the country. We were quite transparent about the challenges we had. I asked them: “Here’s our situation, you have a lot of experience in dealing with this or that, what do you recommend?”  I think they appreciated our candor and were thus more willing to share with us a lot of very useful advice and information. I also talked with other CSR field practitioners who gave me examples of best practice in other parts of the world.  These different examples inspired me to try out some other ways of doing this work.

Next, I studied the obligations we had toward the Malagasy government and the IFC performance standards. In clearly understanding our responsibilities to these two key stakeholders, we were able to plan our priority activities in a more logical and coherent manner.

As we were slowly completing construction in early 2012, we started to put the Boreal-Is system in place to monitor our commitments and our stakeholder engagement activities. To make it locally-appropriate, we gave it a Malagasy name: TAFITA. At the same time, we were restructuring the CSR department to create community relations teams with clearly-defined leaders and management objectives for all our engagement programs. Under this new system, an Ambatovy social agent was assigned to each of our 20 focus communes.  We then designed social programs for health, education and livelihood activities in order to mitigate Project impacts, address community needs, and demonstrate Project benefits. During this period, we  used the BoréalisIMSTM solution to manage our stakeholder engagements, while also launching an effective grievance mechanism.

V.F.: When did you see the first results?

J.B.D.: It took a good six months for people internally and externally to begin seeing the benefits generated by the company and realize that we listened to them.  Looking back, I would say that listening was about 75% of the equation for improving our community relations. Most of our community communications were entered into the BoréalisIMSTM solution. This enable us to select the name of any of our stakeholders and find out, for example, whether s/he had an affected rice field, or if s/he had participated in one of our quarterly exchange meetings, or if s/he was visited during one of our routine visits.  The IMS solution allowed us to understand what kind of communication was happening with each particular stakeholder, and where we should go from there.

V.F.: Is there any other advice you would like to share with people involved in similar situations?

J.B.D.: Communication with stakeholders needs to be sincere and respectful. We must avoid situations where the social agents appear only to be in a transactional relationship.  Effective stakeholder engagement should not focus on keeping people at bay so that the project can move forward, but instead, it must involve transparent and considerate dialogue about how the Project can move forward with the maximum amount of community support. It also requires consistency. For example, if a social agent gives one message and then another social agent gives a different message to the same community or individual, the lack of consistent messages can create confusion and distrust. This illustrates the importance of documenting all interactions to ensure consistent messaging across people and programs involved in the Project.

I also invite those interested in this topic to join me at the Boréalis Conference 2013 in Brisbane, Australia, on September 18-19. I will talk about the challenges we faced, and will exchange ideas with attendees for how to improve community relations. It will be an excellent opportunity to share experiences and improve stakeholder management practices across the extractive industries.

Please note that the opinions and ideas expressed in this article are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and ideas of Boréalis.

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