Promoting successful community engagement in Africa
By Keith Kozloff, Director, OPIC Office of Accountability
OPIC’s Office of Accountability is an independent office within OPIC that was established to address concerns or conflicts about environmental or social issues that may arise around OPIC-supported projects. While we’re committed to conflict resolution, our preference is always to avoid conflict in the first place.
I heard this same sentiment in May in Nairobi, when I convened a workshop with the Compliance Review and Mediation Unit (CRMU) of the African Development Bank (AfDB) that focused on successful community engagement around energy and infrastructure projects in Africa. The purpose of the workshop was to focus on potential projects which may be supported by Power Africa, President Barack Obama’s initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.
Building on Africa’s enormous energy potential, the Power Africa Initiative is working to help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.
Because there is often significant construction involved with energy investments, it is critical for investors to proactively consult with local communities to support positive outcomes. The workshop in Nairobi, which attracted more than 30 participants from the private sector and development finance institutions, covered some of the best practices for private developers to engage with project-affected communities.
The session began by focusing on the causes and consequences of conflict, using a range of Africa-specific examples. Although learning from past disputes is useful, many participants focused on techniques such as identifying all groups that are potentially affected by the project – including them in public consultations and conducting a conflict risk analysis at the start of the project to better understand local dynamics – as a way to avoid conflict.
Local support for major infrastructure projects can also be fostered through multi-stakeholder planning processes that seek to integrate the project into broader development aspirations in the affected area. In this way, community goals can be incorporated into the project’s development impact objectives, giving the local community a stake in the project’s success.
For example, if an infrastructure project involves training local workers to operate heavy machinery or drive large trucks, these skills might be used to provide a basis for a new local business that makes use of those skills, creates jobs and benefits the local economy. Or if electricity is introduced to a community for the first time, access to that service may facilitate new projects that the community is interested in developing. Community engagement from the outset is essential to ensuring that any new projects align with the community’s priorities.
If disputes between communities and project developers do arise, workshop participants expressed a preference for first attempting to resolve them using trusted local community or tribal leaders or via project level grievance redress mechanisms. If the dispute persists despite these efforts, then bringing in independent third party mediators may make sense.