Africa Policy and Futures Forum

Using Tools of Environmental Management to Reimagine the Social Contract

By Monique Cooper-Liverpool on March 24, 2022

As a continent, much has been written and documented about Africa’s complex “curses”—our resource curse, our economic curse, our social governance curse, all of which have led to our poverty curse! Of course, one way to begin pursuing solutions is to fully appreciate the problem and design new tools to address it. Another option is to appreciate the challenges, explore options through tools, skills, and resources already available, and reimagine pathways for progress.

When we Africans consider our wider economic and social governance disappointments as citizens and taxpayers, much of our discontent rests on whether we feel resources have been used efficiently, on whether diligence has been exercised in maximizing benefit for public expenditure, and on the frustration that visible investments do not reflect individual priorities. In view of this, African and European scholars alike argue that it may indeed be high time for citizens and their governments in African states to redefine the social contract—the implicit, yet formal, agreement of responsibilities between citizens and those who govern them, particularly for social benefits of the greater good.

So, if this reimagined and redefined social contract is in fact what we need in our societies, do we have tools to activate it? Are there existing frameworks available to jumpstart this process of engaging with each other as interested parties and duty-bearers with a shared responsibility? I think we do and, almost ironically, I think the most easily accessible framework is already practiced in our environmental and natural resource management space: the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) framework.

As ordinary citizens, at the core of our expectations of government is that it will respond to and provide for our basic social services in a way that aligns with our personal and collective priorities, attending realities, and individual aspirations. Over time, we also expect our government to communicate with us and keep us updated so that we believe that these services are indeed aligned with our priorities, realities, and aspirations. This continuous process of engagement and inclusion of citizens in key decision-making and information-sharing concerning the delivery of services and collective social development is integral to the design of stakeholder engagement through the ESIA framework.  

In considering processes and systems around natural resource management and governance in Africa, it is easy to focus on the arguably poor prioritization of allocating resource revenues. While this poor prioritization absolutely warrants an exhaustive discussion, it is important to focus on the processes and tools of engagement and inclusion before those natural resource projects come on stream to even produce the squandered revenues!

The concept of ESIA began in the late 1960s to consider the environmental impacts associated with large projects in the USA through the seminal legislation establishing the US Environmental Protection Agency. Other countries such as Australia, Thailand, France, and the Philippines were early adaptors in the mid-late 1970s. With increased public awareness of environmental risks and a drive towards sustainability, the 1980s saw international organizations lead the charge with advancing environmental impact assessments, particularly the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). In 1982 the World Charter for Nature was adopted at the UN General Assembly. This charter included language stating that EIAs, or nature assessments, are required to minimize adverse effects on nature. It further stated that they should be included in the fundamental elements of all planning, be publicly disclosed, and deliberated.

Over the years, the integral nature of social considerations in the context of environmental impact influenced the expansion of the term to include “social” as well as “environmental” components for impact assessment. International organizations such as the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and African Development Bank currently require environmental and social impact considerations for any large investments, projects, or initiatives. The ESIA process is underpinned from start to end by participatory interactions and engagements between the developer and those connected to the resource, the location, and the asset being developed.

Back to the initial question: Is it possible that this process of two-way interaction and information disclosure genuinely occurs between the governors and the governed such that it becomes the norm of how we expect to interact with authorities on the delivery of social services in our municipalities, cities, and states? If these processes are good enough to inform regulatory approval processes for exploiting our resources, aren’t they also worth using to deliver dignified and appropriate social services?

Let’s consider the levels of information disclosure, sharing, iteration, and feedback throughout an ESIA process and how they can be considered in re-imagining the social contract in Africa.

The ESIA process begins with a series of public disclosures through various mediums. In Liberia, multiple outlets are engaged: traditional news outlets of national radio, daily newspapers, rural community radio stations and translated into dialects, town criers, community bulletin boards, and cultural theater groups. This is an official expression of intentions regarding the overall project’s vision and what to expect next. It is an introduction of sorts between the two parties and a chance to communicate early-stage expectations. We’ve seen many civil society groups and community healthcare initiatives often champion this initial information disclosure process. However, it is often treated as a one-time incident. In many NGO-driven service delivery programs, an awareness campaign is done to launch them, but often only at program introduction. 

In the context of resource development projects, the next round of deep interactions occurs through gathering field data. For social data and studies, this can involve one-on-one interviews, town hall meetings, small, focus group discussions, and informal conversations. This is a rich engagement that builds priceless connections and establishes a stronger level of trust, understanding, and determination of an informed position through repeated interactions and personal dialogues. For the delivery of key social services, especially in remote areas, consistent personal engagement (directly or on behalf of service providers) is absolutely critical. Seeking inputs on the reception of services, providing updates of activities, sharing emerging issues from recent service delivery challenges, and communicating timelines are all key for keeping citizens included. Effective service delivery often requires significant elements of behavior change and adopting new habits, which in turn requires building trust over time. Having community-level service providers who are personally vested in the areas in which they serve over time also influences the expectations of service quality and delivery. This is also a way for our professionals to stay connected to their end-users and keep iterating how to roll out other new initiatives or scale existing ones better, ultimately for improved uptake—a key measure for service delivery.

Through the ESIA engagement framework, yet another round of engagement requires honest, detailed disclosures of known risks, potential pitfalls, and unmet needs that may arise from project development. This engagement is usually a delicate phase, but when managed correctly, goes a long way in strengthening a foundation of mutual trust and respect. The fact is that not all impacts or consequences may be ideal. This is the case for resource development projects, but also cumulatively for some social service delivery initiatives. Undertaking an ESIA process compels courageous conversations about instances where resources may be insufficient to adequately deliver services or discussing how some community vulnerabilities may be inadvertently worsened.

From a project development perspective, a final process of mutual decision-making occurs with community residents to agree, accept, re-align, or abandon the initiatives. After previous disclosures, explanations and discussions, residents still must decide if the proposed project is agreeable. Likewise, with service delivery, while we would love for 100% acceptance and uptake of programs, that is not realistic. Engagement and dialogue for mutual acceptance and agreement of what may be possible or not is equally important. With the consistent interactions that would have preceded, residents would be familiar with their neighborhood service providers and have established relationships of trust.  

In principle, this notion may be feasible and plausible. However, evidence has taught us that systems work because the people in them do. Therefore, no matter how perfect our system might be, it must be filled with people who accept and balance the collective priorities, shared realities, and individual aspirations.

Within the ESIA context, participation is a metric, but inclusion is a mindset. The guidance on a structured engagement process that the ESIA framework offers also enables a foundation for adopting an inclusion mindset—a fundamental step towards reimagining how citizens and government interact on mutual obligations. This approach has the potential to transform how the service providers and the served to address their shared duties and responsibilities.

Monique Cooper-Liverpool is the Managing Director of Petra Resources, a boutique environmental and social governance consultancy firm in Liberia.

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