Lessons Learned from CSR Counsellor

Op Ed Embassy, January 2012

Marketa D. Evans

Disclaimer: Marketa Evans is the Government of Canada's Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor. The CSR Counsellor is a special advisor to the Minister of International Trade. The Counsellor has no policymaking role and does not represent Government of Canada policy positions.

According to Natural Resources Canada, Canadian mining investment overseas has surged in the past decade: from about $30 billion to over $130 billion in 2010. Virtually all of that growth has come in Africa and Latin America, and much of it in countries that the global risk assessment firm Maplecroft labels "high or extreme risk," particularly on social or political metrics. Yet, these are also the countries actively courting resource investment as critical to poverty reduction, employment growth and tax revenue.

In these environments, Canadian companies face increased social risk and conflict. A recent research paper from the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Initiative at Harvard University points out that the costs of social conflict in the extractive industries are extremely high, for all sides. Companies may experience project delays, reputational damage, investor skittishness and legal costs. But of special note is that in one-third of the cases the paper looked at, social conflict also resulted in loss of life. Faced with this reality, I believe we must explore every available option to resolve conflict and do much more to enhance effective conflict prevention.

Nearly two years ago, we opened the doors of the Office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor, the first office of its kind in the world, as part of the Government of Canada's CSR strategy for our international mining, oil and gas sectors. Just before Christmas, we tabled our second annual Report to Parliament, sharing some of our learnings.

The CSR Strategy sets out voluntary performance guidelines that Canadian mining, oil and gas companies are encouraged to work with in order to improve performance and manage emerging risks. These voluntary standards go beyond what host country laws might require, covering issues ranging from management of private security forces to biodiversity to labour conditions.

Dialogue-based approach

Leadership Canadian companies recognize that CSR is not about philanthropy or random acts of kindness. Rather, it is a strategic response to an accelerating and material business risk - the constant challenge of securing and maintaining the social licence to operate. Compliance with the law, while absolutely necessary, is no longer sufficient.

The Office's two key roles are to resolve corporate/community disputes and to help improve CSR performance. Working closely with other elements of the CSR Strategy, the Office raises awareness of standards and good practice for implementation. Overseas communities can approach the Office to help facilitate constructive dialogue with a Canadian company. Because our process was built for use outside of Canada, we've spent a great deal of time, over these past two years, listening and learning from communities and civil society groups overseas. Overwhelmingly, they have endorsed such a dialogue-based approach as useful in driving positive change on the ground.

How can dialogue help? What we've learned in our hundreds of conversations - from Mali to Mexico, from Peru to Burkina Faso - is that many communities seek the benefits that constructive dialogue can potentially bring. Opportunities to build trust, explore win/win options, enhance learning, and share information are all key ingredients in building relationships.

In a project that lasts 10, 20, or 30 years, communities and companies need to find ways to continuously improve relations and resolve issues that arise. And since many issues of concern to communities are not "legal" in nature, lawsuits may not help. It is difficult to regulate, for example, perceptions of adequate consultation, or trust in the credibility of scientific evidence, or mutual respect. Lawsuits can be costly, lengthy, and accentuate resource imbalances.

What we heard, time and again, is that courts are often a poor mechanism for ordinary people affected by Canadian corporate practice. For those interested in relatively rapid response, this Office offers one av enue to access. And, it's free to use for communities. But it is meant to be just one tool among many.

One hopeful sign is that similar approaches have demonstrated real and positive results. A recent video produced about the Tintaya Dialogue Table in Peru powerfully demonstrates the value in dialogue. Unfortunately, in many countries, there are no existing platforms for multistakeholder conversation. The Office's approach therefore, has been widely endorsed as "practical" and giving "new ways of supporting the community and the miners." We've been discussed as a model for other countries. We've also seen tremendous appetite for learning across all sectors. Our office responded to over 200 requests for information and expertise last year, and demand is increasing.

This year, we are working to put more information into the public domain - through our Learning Partnership with Ryerson University, a monthly Canadian Mining Journal column, occasional discussion notes, and our many outreach activities.

Given that the key trends are likely to continue, opportunities for Canadian leadership and innovation abound. We must continue to seek new and constructive ways to enhance corporate/community relationships.