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Implementing social safeguards in projects: A conversation with Kate Dunbar

OPIC’s new Director of Social Assessment is Kate Dunbar, who previously served as Senior Social Impact Analyst in OPIC’s Office of Investment Policy (OIP). Before joining OPIC, she conducted ethnographic research on local knowledge and perceptions of glaciers, resource management, and climatic variation including two years of field research in Peru while studying for her PhD in Anthropology. In her new role, Dunbar will oversee work to ensure the projects OPIC supports apply appropriate social safeguards, including respect for worker rights and human rights. Here Dunbar talks about her new role and how her background in anthropology informs this work.


Describe the duties of your new role and the work you'll oversee.

As Director of Social Assessment, I’ll oversee work to screen, analyze and monitor projects to ensure they appropriately implement social safeguards, including those related to worker rights, human rights, public consultation, and grievance redress for communities that may be impacted, and sufficiently avoid, mitigate and manage other potential social impacts of development projects such as when projects need to negotiate land acquisition with neighboring communities.

When OPIC supports a project that has the potential to have a significant social impact, our social analysts consider how affected groups will be consulted, what resources and management programs need to be established, what internal or third party monitoring will be necessary, and how information on the project and its risks and mitigation measures will be communicated to affected groups and other interested parties. We work to ensure that each project has an effective grievance mechanism so that employees as well as external parties may express concerns without fear of reprisal. When there is potential for significant, adverse social impact we consult directly with these potentially affected groups.


How does this work, and all the work of OIP, advance OPIC’s overall mission?

OIP’s work complements OPIC’s overall mission for catalyzing and supporting sustainable development by ensuring that clients have the appropriate resources and systems to address risks but also encourage proactively engaging with project workers and affected communities and protecting natural resources.


Talk a bit about your background and what you learned about social assessment while studying anthropology.

I have a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology with a focus on ecological and environmental systems. For my dissertation research, I spent nearly two years living with communities situated on mountainsides beneath the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian highlands, exploring what interactions they’ve historically had with these glaciers, and how the changes they noted were impacting their approach to water and other resource management. The glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca are a key source of water for many homes and businesses on the Peruvian coast but they are rapidly receding. During my time in these communities, I was able to document multiple generations of residents recounting how often and under what circumstances they did or still do make the hike up to the glacier edge, including ritual processions, family outings, and gathering ice blocks to make shaved ice treats. Given the recession of the glacier to higher points on the mountain, it is much harder for people to visit the ice. Today, communities in the region are concerned about the receding glacier as well as other related changes such as variations in rainfall, temperature and diseases found in their crops and livestock. Some community groups are exploring alternative land-based livelihoods, for example, shifting from agriculture to plantation crops, or considering shifting from a structure of rural homesteads to one of urbanized village centers to justify electricity or potable water services.

This research highlighted the importance of inclusion and transparency in decision-making and resource management, and illustrated the challenges that arise when trying to engage appropriately with a range of stakeholders that may be impacted in different ways where the prescribed or appropriate mitigation measures may conflict with one another. It is easy to use the term “community” to describe a homogenous group, but the reality is there are multiple groups within the communities that are impacted by a project, all of whom may have different perceptions of the appropriate mitigation or management that is required.


When there are multiple communities that may be affected by a single project, how is it possible to fully understand and address all their different concerns?

The intent of the social safeguards is to ensure that the impact mitigation, management and monitoring is designed in a way that is: 1) accessible, 2) transparent, 3) participative, and 4) meaningful. Because no one can be a specialist in all the regions where OPIC operates, it is important to work with the right local partners to help us identify and engage with affected communities and organizations that represent them. In some cases, this can be done through existing reports or literature on a region or industry, but in others we need to partner with local liaisons or professionals that have significant regional experience and can provide guidance.


OPIC takes its investment policies very seriously, often traveling to great lengths to monitor projects. What are some of the places you’ve traveled to at OPIC?

Because of the nature of my work, I typically travel to visit the more sensitive projects.  I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to visit a series of palm oil plantations to meet with workers and nearby communities to learn more about wages, working conditions, and community relations. This was a particularly remote site visit that required I take a series of United Nations flights through Goma to Kisangani followed by multiple eight plus hour trips in a small motor boat down the Congo River. A fascinating and beautiful trip to be sure, but it also allowed me to understand the opportunities and challenges of the potential OPIC investment from those groups most affected by the project. I’ve also traveled to visit with communities affected by a small hydroelectric project in East Africa where the project was negotiating land acquisition with local farmers, and to a project aimed at preventing deforestation in Cambodia.


Can you offer an example of how the work of OPIC’s Office of Investment Policy monitoring of projects and measuring impact has improved a project or in some way brought about positive changes?

Often, the project sponsor has every good intention of meeting OPIC's environmental and social standards, but is not fully aware of what that will entail. In these cases, we work closely with project sponsors to help them understand not only the resource and timing implications of such standards but also how meeting these standards can benefit the project’s long-term potential.  It is fine to say that you are committed to high performance standards but what is really important is ensuring you can meet them. The success stories for us are when the client really understands what meeting these standards will require and they commit to and follow through on their implementation.


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