Energy projects are sometimes characterised by resistance from the local communities in which they are to be conducted. This leads to a deadlock, expensive litigations, delays and sometimes violence as the communities resort to various ways of blocking the project. Acceptance of energy projects by the local community is pertinent to the project’s success.
The most effective way to deal with such resistance is by dialogue between the project managers and the local communities. This should be a continuous process that the parties engage in throughout the project to address any issues or concerns that may arise at any stage. Dialogue provides a platform for both the local communities and the project managers to engage on a deeper level, seeking to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives with regard to the project and to address any concerns or issues that may lead to resistance of the projects.
A good example that shows the importance of dialogue in preventing and solving conflicts is the announcement by Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) in 2019, where it announced plans to set up a special unit to handle public concerns over projects it handles through, among others, structured dialogue. Their aim is to provide the local communities with a platform to present their concerns and to get their goodwill as well as fostering community engagement at all stages of the projects. This avoids litigations by local communities as they oppose the projects, which is usually costly and oftentimes derails the projects’ execution.
Dialogue should be centred on active listening by the project managers. The aim is to understand the different perspectives of the local communities with regard to the project, which is what occasions the resistance and responding to these concerns objectively. The members of the local community should be invited for dialogue and given time to adequately prepare for it.
They should be given an opportunity first and foremost to voice their concerns. This is where active listening comes in, as the project managers are supposed to listen keenly and note down all the concerns raised by the representatives. This is to ensure they, the project managers, capture all concerns brought to light by the other party.
Further, the project managers should ask open-ended questions and seek clarification on some of the issues raised. This allows the other party to answer them extensively and exhaustively. In the process of having this dialogue, the project managers should try to put themselves in the shoes of the local community representatives to try and understand the reasons, background and motives for the perspectives they hold. This helps the project managers to respond objectively based on the issues raised. For example, it would be apparent from such engagements that the resistance is being caused by a lack of clarity on a critical aspect of the project such as the benefits it offers to the local communities.
The project managers should have comprehensive responses to the questions raised while engaging with the community. In this part, the project managers should respond while having regard to, and acknowledging the different and new perspectives brought to the table by the other party. This can be through reiterating what the community members have pointed out as it shows that they indeed paid attention to the concerns being raised and also increases trust between parties. The responses can be aimed at addressing, firstly, specific questions raised with regard to the project and secondly, restating the objectives and goals of the energy project as well as the accompanying benefits to the local community.
Further, the project managers should be willing to make compromises that would benefit both them and the local community as well. This can be on matters such as increasing the percentage of job opportunities offered to the local communities, so that they experience a direct benefit of the project, which helps them feel included.