Driving Canadian leadership on social issues in emerging markets
The Canadian mining industry will be judged on its ability to manage social issues in emerging markets, countries where domestic regulation and accountability is often weak. Corporations may attempt to fill the “governance gaps,” but in doing so they face new challenges and risks.
This is a matter at the heart of our values and interests. While resource exploitation can bring tremendous development benefits, Canadians want an overseas presence that reflects our commitments to human rights and environmental protection. Canadian companies must work to sustain their social license to operate – both at home and abroad. Social issues management can no longer be a sideline concern. Internet activism, be it social blogging or video posted on YouTube, brings home even the remotest projects. NGOs have not only proliferated, they have steadily gained in influence while corporate reputations continue to take a beating. Recent GlobeScan surveys confirm that mining companies face particular reputational challenges around wealth sharing and environmental stewardship.
Some progress has been made on bridging wide divides through partnerships and codes of conduct, for instance, both at the firm and industry levels.
And yet, despite such progress, the industry and NGOs too often view themselves in opposition, because we have largely failed to identify shared strategic goals and build trust and understanding. Canadian extractive companies are accused of serious violations of ethical and environmental standards. We hear calls for extraterritorial legislation to regulate the sector overseas. Industry, on the other hand, points to the vital role of foreign direct investment in lifting people out of poverty, and to the many community infrastructure projects provided such as clinics, schools and the like. Some in the corporate arena argue that community engagement is best done in-house; others say it is a hopeless cause to engage with “irresponsible” and insatiable agendas.
It’s time to explore ways to manage social issues more creatively.
NGOs can and should be a vital part of the solution to community engagement and corporate reputation. They possess skill sets and knowledge and sensitivities that corporations simply cannot replicate. But their “brand” and their risk management is just as vital to them as it is for business.
Setting a new agenda
How can the industry set a new agenda for partnership with civil society organizations? A few ideas might kickstart a productive dialogue.
Let’s bring more nuance into the exchanges by remembering that the NGO community is a large one, just as the corporate community is. Do your due diligence. Understand the constituency constraints. Who is willing to take a leadership position and bring others on board? On which issues?
It might be useful to look for allies in broad debates. NGOs recognize, for instance, that civil society power derives from legitimacy and public trust, and that with increasing roles as policy players comes more responsibility. The nascent global NGO Accountability Charter, endorsed by some of the world’s largest civil society organizations, indicates that the issue is on their agenda.
It is admittedly difficult, but nonetheless entirely possible, to find areas of common ground, in both project and policy arenas. The Kimberley Process on Conflict Diamonds collectively engaged a number of NGOs with De Beers; Amnesty International and Statoil have co-operated on judicial reform in Venezuela; and Search for Common Ground and Chevron have co-created a community engagement project in Angola that emphasizes the importance of local cohesion in post-conflict development. But a clear deficiency exists: we have limited ability to learn about and learn from such global best practice models.
A natural Canadian leadership position exists on this important issue. But driving that leadership potential will require creative thinking and action on next generation collaboration.
The views expressed are those of the author alone.