Can we eradicate poverty? Yes,but not alone.

Can we eradicate poverty? Yes, but not alone.

By Steve Smith
Corporate Partnerships Coordinator at emerge poverty free

It was while working in northern Nigeria five years ago that I had my development epiphany. I heard of a man who networked with wealthy oil companies in Lagos and was able to leverage these relationships to bring medical supplies to local communities. I was inspired by this story. Instead of appealing to traditional donors from richer countries, this man had taken it upon himself to help the local community by building partnerships with businesses operating in the country. I realized then that corporations and wealthy donors in Nigeria were able to lead their own people out of poverty. But someone needed to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots, someone who had enough expertise to create and implement a sustainable approach to poverty reduction. I decided that this was something I would do. I would listen to the extremely poor, talk to them of their dreams and hopes, develop ways to address their needs and then take the resulting projects to the world’s wealthy corporations who have the money, but not necessarily the know-how, to make sustainable change happen. At emerge poverty free, we’ve been looking at how to develop partnerships with corporations in the countries where we already work.

Our organization started life as a disaster relief agency almost two decades ago and today, although our focus has shifted to longer-term development, we still work in many conflict-prone states, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or South Sudan. Many companies avoid these volatile markets. The extractive industry is the exception, going where many others will not. Extractive companies also tend to operate in fixed areas, and this gels well with our focused community model of development through which we address multiple causes of poverty in specific locations.

This year, we have been working with the operators of a gold project in eastern DRC to assess the needs of the surrounding community in order to draw up pilot projects that will deliver the most appropriate and sustainable gains to the people living there. The company recognized the potential to create a real win-win scenario if this is correctly implemented, and were aware of the risks of further fuelling historic conflict if appropriate engagement is not achieved with a balanced and full range of groups.

Working with a Congolese NGO, whose director used to work as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) director for a major gold mining company, and with key members of the community, we carried out qualitative and quantitative research. We sat down with community members and we listened to what they had to say. We then triangulated our findings with international data and reported back on what the surrounding community – around 35,000 people — needed most.

Some of our report made for bleak reading. The presence of gold and a lack of control of its exploitation had drawn thousands of artisanal miners to the district’s main town, where we were based. This influx led to a rise in prostitution and rates of HIV infection, more incidences of rape, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. Girls were having their first child at 14. The environment had been severely polluted: arsenic and mercury from the artisanal mining had contaminated the water and trees had been cut down. There were no fish in the river. Most game had been wiped out because of hunting for food. There was very little power and the roads were appalling. The area was still in thrall to the Mai Mai rebels, who had killed 13 people during an attack on the army base, in the town the previous month. Many feared the rebels would attack again soon.

Many international NGOs had come, started projects and then watched them fail. To make sure our projects would not suffer the same fate, we selected a cross-section of the community to meet us at the local school. The groups were split between male and female participants, and according to age. The men arrived in three-piece suits and the women wore colourful dresses, a sign of how important this meeting was to them. There were government officials, artisanal miners and prostitutes among those who gathered to voice their opinions. Some angrily complained that people had come promising solutions so many times, but had never delivered. Many seemed almost devoid of hope, but others could see the possibilities for change.

This was a tough place to live and a tough place to work. But using the findings of the needs assessment, we worked with the mining company and the Congolese NGO to draw up one-year pilot projects to tackle illiteracy among women and to create a savings and loans programme to help women set up their own businesses. Our Congolese partners told us that a previous literacy project had had some immediate and rather unexpected results: divorce rates rocketed as women began to read the texts on their husbands’ phones, discovering some unpleasant truths about their faithfulness.

Partnerships between NGOs and the extractive industry are often decried, partly because of the long-held view that mining companies are rapacious entities intent on sucking the good out of an area without any care or consideration for the people who live there or the land they live on. This view has been tempered in recent years, thanks partly to legislation and regulation, and to growing recognition amongst many western mining companies of the fact that shared benefit and partnership, with benefits accruing at local as well as national level, is not only the right thing to do but also is sound business Several large international NGOs now count extractive corporations among their donors.

For mining companies, partnerships with NGOs like emerge poverty free make good business sense. We work with the community to decide on the best possible project and this means there is less likelihood of things going wrong and requiring expensive fixes. Mining companies are, of course, full of experts including geologists, engineers and accountants. But their primary focus is to make sure there is a solid business case behind their project. Mining companies, whilst wishing to act positively, do not often have the in-house expertise needed to engage with the community from a sustainable development perspective. Additionally the use of a third party to assess needs and help deliver projects typically allows for a degree of independent thought and scrutiny, resulting in more appropriate and credible projects that can potentially outlast the mine.

We have found that approaching businesses in terms of Return On Investment (ROI) gives corporates a legitimate financial case, aside from the obvious moral imperative, to spend money on the local community and also opens up much larger sums of money from sources other than their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budget.

It is hard for NGOs to put a monetary value on social development and to convincingly show what this will bring to a company’s bottom-line. But progress is being made. Notably, it is possible to illustrate the costs associated with worst-case scenarios, such as having to shut down production because of local opposition or unrest.

What was once a mutually suspicious if not downright hostile relationship between NGOs and mining companies is starting to change. Within the mining industry, many executives are acutely aware of the effect their operations have on local communities, and they want to ensure that impacts are positive and long lasting. This cooperation is, of course, a work in progress. There are many pitfalls and due diligence is imperative: there are still a diminishing number of mining industry players who believe the taxes they pay to central government are sufficient alone in terms of social investment.

But it is clear now that the expertise found in mining companies, as well as their wealth, can be leveraged for maximum impact if there is a sound development understanding of the needs of the local community. The construction of schools, hospitals and other infrastructure is quick and visible, and indeed is often what is demanded by local officials and politicians, but it is not always what the community needs.

Organisations like emerge poverty free have the expertise to measure local needs and to craft appropriate and sustainable solutions. Nobody wants to waste money. Working together, mining companies and development experts can ensure that the communities they work among will feel the benefits of this interaction for many years and will be able to ultimately take ownership of their own march out of poverty.

As we mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, it is perhaps worth reflecting on this year’s theme: Leave no one behind: think, decide and act together to end extreme poverty. We can do it, if we work together for the benefit of all.