There have been two forms of P2 in my career. When I started out, I was doing internal P2, designing and facilitating engagement processes with staff internally to manage innovation. Then I spent the last ten years, designing and facilitating engagement processes between proponents and external stakeholders on industrial and infrastructure projects in Québec, Canada, Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia. It was right at the beginning of a time when private-sector companies and regulators started putting more importance on engaging people who would be affected by a proposed project. Now, my focus at Transfert Environment and Society is providing clients with strong ways to build and maintain good relations with communities and First Nations throughout a project cycle, especially in Ontario.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
I think that what triggers the need for P2 is when change affects people’s lives, whether a little or a lot. Change can’t be “parachuted” or imposed, or else you’ll be facing frustration and anger.
I first saw the power of P2 when I was a young engineer and I realized that my ideas were a lot less relevant than the ones of the guys who’d been working on the equipment all the time. I felt it was arrogant not to engage with the people who’ve been in the operation for years. If you assume that the people who are in operations have no ideas on how to improve it, you’re making a big mistake.
I was responsible for innovations to make our manufacturing process higher quality and lower cost. Our first attempt failed because of a lack of participation, so the second time, we were determined to work together with all the internal experts we could involve.
I realized then that I would be a lot more valuable as a facilitator of their ideas, to ensure the process was conducive to proper outcomes, no matter what they would be. So this was where I saw the need to engage.
That was how I started to read up on P2 and how I could play a role. I think every individual has input that will make a much stronger project, but the way to gather input and bring it to an outcome is just as important as the ideas themselves.
After a few years, I wanted to gain new knowledge in social and economic affairs, so I went back to University to get my Master’s in social sciences and went to work in international development. One of my friends thought my profile of engineering and social science would be relevant to engineering firms that work abroad and need stakeholder engagement processes. Many of the assignments I had during my time there were financed by the World Bank or other development banks, which have a poverty reduction agenda. They designed performance criteria and operational standards to make sure that the voice of the poor and marginalized are heard, so the projects they invest in have thorough and meaningful participatory processes. This compensates for the lack of national environmental regulations.
My role in these projects was to design and facilitate the participatory process on Resettlement Action Plans (RAP) and Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies. With field teams who can manage in the local languages, our role was to make sure the top concerns were known and addressed; after that, the bank would decide whether to invest, given the social risks identified.
Some proponents tend to believe that if they don’t reveal details of a project, it will have a better chance of going forward. But we in P2 believe that if you do that, members of the public will stall it because they don’t know what the project is about and they become afraid. Literature and the development of P2 in the private sector proves that it’s a better idea to let the public see what your project is about earlier in the process.
Another challenge we can experience abroad is the social hierarchy and the lack of freedom of speech. When we speak in public, it appears everyone wants the project; but in private, people share their concerns. It is important to factor that into P2 strategies. Individual conversations or small focus groups can be very fruitful when important people are not around, who could threaten people to take a particular stand on a project. You can also witness such behaviour in North America, in regions plagued by unemployment, as portrayed in the movie “Promised Land”.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
I was leading a stakeholder process for a hydro-electric dam located at the border of Rwanda, Burundi and Western Tanzania. There was to be a resettlement of the population, because the dam would create a reservoir and land would be flooded – not so much houses, but productive lowland would be lost.
We started a dialogue process with a proposed scenario, but there was some missing information: a lot more people would have been affected than previously believed. Our team was able to convince the proponent and the World Bank that instead of consulting on one scenario, we should give people a choice: show them that more electricity meant more land would be affected and that less electricity would mean less land affected. And that’s where I learned the power of P2: that in front of choices and trade-offs, stakeholders know they can influence and thus seek to participate.
Both land and electricity were super-important in Rwanda and Burundi and it was a difficult choice. Composition of the dialogue platforms was also key to have the right decision-makers at the table. One important investment rule for the World Bank is to restore or enhance quality of life, which meant finding a sustainable solution for the populations to be resettled. It was impossible to find such solutions in Burundi.
I also learned on that project how important it is that affected communities truly understand the project in order to have meaningful participation. It took a long time for farmers to understand how the reservoir would affect them, until we painted a line on the banana trees with red paint, showing how high the water would rise. Before that demonstration, farmers were publicly in favour, as it often is in more hierarchical societies. But once they understood the impact, they were able to voice their concerns within the political system. They ultimately decided that the land they would lose would be more painful than the lack of power during the next 20 years. And they would rely on more imports for electricity.
It was a great outcome, and now I’m a big advocate for P2 in scenarios and adding a social designer earlier in the process. Once you’re very advanced in the project design, and investment is high on a particular scenario, it’s difficult to go back and you might end up with a very bad project.
What “big wins” have you had?
As I say, I became an advocate of adding social designers to a project team earlier in the process. The project has as greater chance of happening if it’s well designed at all levels. You need someone at the table who can give you the communities’ “eyes” due to years of experience listening to concerns and tell you all the reasons why people wouldn’t want the project to go ahead. A social designer, along with the engineers and environmental scientists, can help develop scenarios that could be more socially acceptable before facing populations with a bad proposal.
I am particularly busy in Ontario right now and it is interesting to share respective know-how with some of our new clients there. One of them is particularly progressive and eager to learn about P2. I met him in a P2 conference actually. Although I did advocate the social designer position to all my clients, he is the first one to have created the position in all new projects! That is a big win for us, as my colleagues and I have been advocating for many years now to ensure social integration of industrial and infrastructure projects as early as possible…The design stage is the right moment!
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
I think it’s a state-of-the-art type of profession. Being a P2 specialist is not something you learn in school. You have to walk the road and to put yourself into challenging situations to learn, but you need a mentor or a coach, too. You’ll learn a lot more by being paired with someone who has experience and can advise you, than at school. It’s a profession that works by apprenticeship.
One of the things I did learn by myself but would have liked to have more coaching is how to develop a mechanism to adapt quickly to culturally different regions. We are from a place, we are what we are, but in order to build trust we need to be more culturally aligned with engaged stakeholders. Anyone who works with First Nations is fully aware of this fact. The first time I consulted First Nations and Inuit in some of the Plan Nord projects, I was amazed at how different we are though sharing the same territory. There is also micro-culture in some regional areas in Canada that you would not expect. This adaptive mechanism becomes natural after a while, but you have to constantly remind yourself of it before any undertaking, since we come back to our natural selves very quickly. It is important to be fully aware of cultural sensitivities and ways of life because whether you are a P2 consultant or a project proponent, it really is your job to adapt to host communities and not the opposite.