Natural resource extraction has been described as a curse in many developing countries because of its association with corruption, human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Even so, natural resources have and will continue to play a significant role in the development of many poorer nations.
In this context, several Canadian mining firms and civil society organizations have sought to chart a new course, one in which the mining occurs in better organized and governed national and local contexts, mining and corporate social responsibility practices reflect the highest international standards, and greater benefits accrue to the communities in which mining activities occur. The key is that this collaboration results in win-win situations for all parties involved.
Industry standards and investments, corporate social responsibility and community relations apply beyond the extractive sector. These issues arise wherever the private sector plays a prominent role in development. As a result, efforts are needed to encourage greater private sector investment, domestic and international (including Canadian), and to ensure that this investment generates wider benefits for poor people and their communities.
Two projects in Ghana and Sri Lanka highlight some of the opportunities and challenges of private sector and civil society collaboration in addressing some of these issues.
In Ghana, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) has initiated a project with CIDA and Rio Tinto Alcan funding to strengthen the capacity of a district government to: develop more participatory development plans with local communities; deliver better quality education, water and sanitation, and youth services; and engage and collaborate with all mining firms operating in the area. In doing so, this project seeks to increase the benefits that communities receive from mining operations in particular, by strengthening governance at the local level. This has the added benefit of helping to create a more stable, predictable and welcoming local environment for mining and other private sector investments. Over time, this small project should inform broader national policies on mining and local governance.
In Sri Lanka, WUSC is undertaking a similarly interesting initiative in the tea sector, where it works with plantation communities and tea estate owners. With CIDA support, WUSC has aided plantation communities – which include some of the most marginalized people in Sri Lanka – to obtain their birth certificates and national identity cards, participate in civic education, and begin organizing to address some of their own needs. Estate owners have also been encouraged to improve working conditions and make greater investments in the well-being of plantation communities. Labour relations have improved, productivity in the sector has increased, and greater benefits have accrued to both communities and estate owners. As well, other tea estate owners are now eager to apply the lessons developed through this project, thereby multiplying the impact of Canada’s modest initial investment in plantation communities.
Projects such as the ones in Sri Lanka and Ghana demonstrate the potential to harness private sector interests to advance the interests and well-being of poorer communities. This work involves new models of collaboration between communities, civil society, government and the business community in ways that create greater benefits for all parties involved.
The form in which this collaboration takes place will necessarily vary by industry, country and even community. However, it will depend upon an understanding by industry that its long-term success is increasingly linked to the rights, participation and prosperity of communities affected by industry operations. Similarly, successful collaboration will depend upon civil society organizations capable of working with communities, local government and industry itself in ways that help to create pragmatic platforms for conflict resolution and meaningful win-win collaboration.
Chris Eaton is the executive director of World University Service of Canada and former CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan.