Making resettlement projects work

By Elize Becker | August 23, 2018

As many as 15 million people are displaced every year, moved from their homes—and often their ancestral communities—to clear space for big development projects. Businesses sometimes underestimate the dramatic effects of separating people from the places they have lived all their lives, where their tribes or communities may have existed for centuries.

Today, there are comprehensive guidelines produced by the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and other researchers and stakeholders about how to compensate displaced people appropriately and help them adjust successfully. But like all things that involve human beings, creating successful plans on paper is one thing. Making them work well in practice? That can be a different story.

The specific reasons resettlement projects are sometimes less-than-resounding successes are as numerous and varied as the reasons for the relocation itself. Still, social scientists who study these phenomena and people who work these operations on the ground tend to agree that there are five principal areas that must be handled properly if these massive transitions are to succeed.

Capability. Not long ago, corporations and governments believed that all the motivation people needed to clear out for a development project was enough money. Not so now. Today, mining companies need the wisdom of a “social performance team.” These are people with a range of relevant skills who know how to properly and respectfully engage with the affected community. They begin by crafting and issuing the right messages and making sure the community’s important heritage aspects are incorporated into the resettlement plans. Team members work in the community’s native language and negotiate terms with all the players, mindful of the affected group’s cultures and frustrations, and managing them with compassion and understanding.

Finance. The companies doing the development work must finance the resettlement. Historically, cash was considered the best form of compensation. But anthropologists are now showing data that this is not always the case, especially in cultures that are not cash-based. Most developers now follow best-practices guidelines set out by organizations like the IFC. Their plans must demonstrate a measurable improvement in the lives of the people being moved, like giving renters the opportunity to own their new home.

Political input. In Africa, political involvement in large projects is strong. Governments are not neutral; they are key stakeholders, often with a vested interest in having projects roll out in a particular way, usually one that favors them economically. Governments play a big part in the relocation efforts, sometimes representing both sides—the people being resettled and those who will benefit most from the investments of the company doing the developing.

Development opportunities. These can be local for affected communities—schools, houses, clinics—and ones that have a wider reach, like new city buildings, offices, and education programs. Whatever the stakes, the developer must be seen to be leaving something of value behind, and part of my company’s work is to help identify what that something might be. The best development opportunities are ones that the community can sustain for itself long after the company leaves and the mine closes.

Compensation. Guided by the World Bank, we work with government authorities to find the best ways to deliver fair compensation to people who must be resettled when a mining company sets up operations. The compensation model chosen depends on the country in question. Resettlement efforts fall flat when the focus is put on the material aspects—jobs and the new house—and pays no attention to the culture and history that define and anchor the people being displaced. In Africa, many find they are unable or unwilling to integrate with the host community when they are moved to another tribe’s territory where they may be seen as foreigners. People start to encounter difficulties and become dissatisfied only after the money runs out, and so we’re realizing that to be successful, resettlement plans must extend for five or even 10 years after the actual move takes place.

To make resettlements work, it’s critical that developers do not create undue or unrealistic expectations. Appropriate agreements must be put in place that fairly consider all the parties involved. Start off on the right foot by involving professionals who fully understand the community dynamics, the ethical protocols, and the local and global policies and practices. Any effort you make to manage your development project properly, responsibly, and sensitively will compensate you with better relations with stakeholders and smoother operations over the long haul.