Canadian Mining Journal


One year later, what has Covid-19 taught us about social performance in the mining sector?

Carolyn Burns of the Devonshire Initiative recaps what the sector has learned during the pandemic about its approach to social performance.

Covid-19 has affected every person around the world, including those communities who are impacted by mining. Over the past year, the Devonshire Initiative has hosted several discussions about the challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19 and social performance in the mining sector. These lessons learned have the potential to change how the industry approaches social performance for many years to come. December marks one year since Covid-19 emerged – an opportune time to look back at what we have learned so far.

Collaboration and co-ordination are key. In the early days of the pandemic, mining companies focused their attention on employee health and safety. However, by May, companies were navigating new relationships and co-ordinating with organizations from other sectors in new and different ways. Around the world, mining companies were working with government bodies, specifically health ministries. Companies were working together regionally in their response to testing and supporting health services. Internally in mining companies, the pandemic has encouraged collaboration between departments at an unprecedented scale – fostered by regular virtual meetings, to understand risks and align responses. Companies are also collaborating with non-profit organizations to adapt social investment programs and co-ordinate responses in the community. Working in a silo (either internally or when it comes to external initiatives) will never be the go-to approach again.

The pandemic shines a light on the vulnerabilities of our current systems. The nature of the pandemic has highlighted how precarious many economic and social systems are and how certain communities are disproportionately impacted by major shocks. In the short term, this has led to an increase in needs-based programming such as food parcels, providing access to PPE and water and sanitation and supporting enhanced health services. The clear precarity of these economic and social systems will inform social investment programs as we move through the next phase of Covid-19 and beyond.

We don’t have to be together to build relationships, but there is a difference between maintaining a relationship and beginning one over the phone. Physical distancing has quickly brought in-person engagement activities to an end and highlighted the health of relationships between stakeholders. Where relationships were strong, the move to virtual engagement was much easier. But where the relationships were not strong (or were nonexistent), companies and communities struggled to engage virtually. The experience of physical distancing and the need to engage with stakeholders will underpin the business case for better engagement for years to come.

The experience of physically distant engagement has also highlighted the potential of virtual tools and platforms to have discussions and share information with a broader set of community members. The pandemic has highlighted the potential of using radio shows, posters and flyers, online hubs and social media to share information about not only the pandemic, but also about mining activity and community programming in general.

Mining companies and NGOs play an important role disseminating credible and accessible information. Particularly where there is a lack of trust between communities and governments or health agencies, mining companies and NGOs are well placed to ensure communities are able to access credible information about Covid-19. When access to information is limited, it becomes easier for false information to spread. Companies and NGOs need to work collaboratively to provide credible information about the virus as well as mining activity and community programming well past Covid-19.

It’s about more than a social licence to operate. A company’s reaction to Covid-19 can contribute to long term trust and strong relationships. A number of companies have noted that the experience with Covid-19 will be a proof point to illustrate if a company was ‘there’ for the community. However, many company representatives have also noted that their response is about more than a social licence to operate. We have a moral duty to support each other during this time and all companies should use their supply chains, convening power, and resources to limit the impact of Covid-19 on their host communities.

We can rewrite the social investment playbook. Social Investment programs have been a major part of mining companies’ initial response to Covid-19. However, the urgency of Covid-19 shook up the established processes and systems for administering and managing social investment programs. Many companies have had to re-establish the rules and thresholds for donations and approvals, which will have long-term impacts on how companies manage social investments.

Around the world, long-term training programs and economic diversification initiatives ground to a halt, and were quickly adapted to meet the immediate needs of the community like access to food, PPE and health services. At a strategic level, this shift can also be a catalyst to move past short-term social investment programs and support long-term sustainable development. The traditional way of doing social investment is often entrenched in the thinking of companies, NGOs, communities and governments. The pandemic presents an opportunity to shift that. Mining activity can be a catalyst for, not a leader of development. We can learn a lot from community-led responses to Covid-19, and the pandemic presents an opportunity for communities to be at the centre of their development planning and programming.

Carolyn Burns is executive director of the Devonshire Initiative, a multi-stakeholder forum that supports cross-sector collaboration to support sustained positive outcomes for mining-impacted communities.

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