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The vital community element in sustainable projects

The vital community element in sustainable projects

Increasingly, the emphasis on the sustainability of major projects has moved to engaging communities in order to catalyse self-sustaining growth and break the cycle of poverty. We asked Amelia Visagie, Training Projects Coordinator at Aurecon, to give her views on this trend and explain what it entails.

Is the community our problem?
The days of regarding the engineering and management of a project as the sole involvement and the affected communities being viewed as someone else’s ‘problem’ have long passed and rightly so. Truly successful projects are those that not only achieve their objectives through the application of the highest engineering and project management standards but also add value by delivering sustainable benefits and effective skills development to communities.

What has driven this change?
The concern for the development of communities may be seen in the context of:

  • Quite simply, a moral responsibility as reflected in Aurecon’s value statements: in summary, we are committed to sustainable practices and investing in the well-being of present and future generations
  • Community development specifications are increasingly embodied in a major project contract
  • The South African government, along with many others, has put in place various regulatory instruments* to ensure that companies give attention to the basic needs of poorer communities affected by new projects 
  • ‘What is in it for us?’ The commercial reality is that today’s poor communities are the future source of business for Aurecon, arising from rapidly escalating demands for housing, work, transport and infrastructure
  • (*e.g. the 2010 Revised Broad Based Socio-Economic Charter for the South African mining industry)

What types of projects need the involvement of communities and what are the benefits?
The primary focus is on projects that have a long-term impact on our economy and can contribute to the sustainable beneficial development of a community. Properly informed community members will better understand the project process and ramifications. They can be a meaningful part of a project’s decision-making process and will be more likely to support a project in which they provided input.

Community stakeholders can be involved in many ways, including comprehensive appraisal processes, informal discussions, planning workshops and focus groups, together with the appointment and training of a steering committee and Community Liaison Officers.

‘Involvement’ is generally a highly complex exercise that requires a professional approach. Engineering companies are increasingly outsourcing the community engagement process and skills development requirement.  Aurecon has its own Unit, SAVE (South African Value Education (Pty) Ltd, with specialists who can manage and provide resources for the community engagement process, as well as set up appropriate development processes and training courses.

The benefits of involving the community are many and diverse. For example, from a business perspective, main contractors will generally experience improved productivity, better quality, while having fewer labour issues and where they arise, the foundation has been laid for resolving them more easily. From an economic perspective, with skills transfer and a better governance framework, the community is better equipped to look after itself and sustain the development process.  Also, the indirect benefits should never be underestimated, in particular the building of trust and relationships with governments, aid donors and other key players.

What is Aurecon’s approach to community engagement?
Through extensive involvement in delivering infrastructure projects to developing communities, Aurecon has realised the importance of an integrated and participatory approach to ensuring the long-term sustainability of projects. Consequently, the company has developed the expertise and structures to undertake holistic Social Intervention Programmes as integrated parts of projects and not as ‘add-on’ afterthoughts.

The company’s approach to infrastructure projects has evolved to focus on capacity building and socio-economic development, rather than solely the delivery of technical related projects. The approach has to be flexible and adapted to suit the unique needs of each client or community. The core purpose is the creation of solutions that are far-reaching and truly sustainable.

How do you tackle poverty?
Poverty is an unacceptable human condition. It can be reduced through public policy and action but it can only be effectively eliminated by promoting social development, economic opportunities and good governance. Developmental intervention in isolation will not guarantee the successful alleviation of poverty. Too many projects in developing countries perpetuate dependency rather than drive sustainability, by focusing on delivering infrastructure and public facilities.

Real change comes from empowering individuals with the capacity to use, maintain and run these facilities.  This means it is not merely about money but more about training and mentorship support. Effective pro-poor development requires interventions to be:

  • People-focused
  • Participatory
  • Based on strengths, not needs
  • Based on strong partnerships
  • Holistic
  • Flexible and dynamic
  • Sustainable (economic, social, environmental and institutional)

What is ‘soft engineering’?
‘Soft engineering’ is the empowering of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform these choices into desired outcomes and actions. It implies bringing together the supply and demand sides of development by changing the environment in which poor people live, while also helping them to make effective use of their own attributes and improve their quality of life.

Does leaving a ‘skills legacy’ benefit the service provider?
The experience gained while delivering a successful major project needs to be properly captured and passed on as a skills legacy to those who will be involved in the operation of the finished project. Ideally these will be mainly local community members and local technical staff recruited for the project team.

This is particularly true of poorer developing countries, where the infrequency of major projects makes it vital that opportunities are not missed to improve the skills levels of everyone involved. One of the most powerful incentives to create a skills legacy is reputational gain. As mentioned earlier, the importance this can have on building relationships with governments, aid organisations and other key players should not be underestimated and they will generally have training agendas. Aligning with these agendas allows a consultant to become a trusted partner for future development projects.

What are the requirements for an effective community participation campaign?
Aurecon recognises that the traditional technocentric approach to implementing projects is no longer acceptable to the community and is frequently the underlying cause of project failure. It is important to achieve an effective level of communication and understanding that enables communities to be involved in project design by:

  • Inspiring them to identify, manage and control their own development aspirations
  • Ensuring the project goals and objectives will meet the real needs of the community
  • Ensuring the project strategy is appropriate to local circumstances
  • Building partnerships, ownership and commitment needed for effective implementation

What are the key features of a communication campaign?
Extensive experience gained on major projects has led to Aurecon’s Training and Communication Division developing a people-orientated service delivery process which:

  • Is participative: the communication process facilitates the accurate exchange of factual information among all involved parties and fosters a common focus on efficient, cost-effective service delivery. The community becomes well-informed and the service provider becomes better aware of the needs of the community
  • Is educative: the communication process creates a greater public understanding of the powers and duties of the project owners as well as the individual’s own responsibility
  • Supports the decision-making process. The community has an effective channel to influence  the operational, implementation and decision-making processes
  • Encourages training and capacity building that addresses a wide variety of issues
  • Generates management information. There needs to be a feedback system to indicate whether the service provider is effectively resolving the issues raised by the community
  • Coordinates information dissemination: outgoing information should be clear, consistent and not contain contradictions

How do you build a sustainable self-reliant community?
The Aurecon One approach is based on the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model, which is an amalgamation of operating principles derived from actual ground level experience with Local Economic Development (LED) schemes and Corporate Social Investment (CSI). ABCD is designed to assist, in an integrated and complementary manner, with the conventional approach to project management.

The challenge for any community is job creation and sustainability and franchising is one of the most successful universally workable business model ever created. ABCD is the first step in a micro franchising approach to community development and SAVE can assist in both of these processes.  It takes a system that is proven to work and applies it to the strengths and natural assets of a community, instead of merely providing short-term responses to needs.

What is sustainable development in a ‘nutshell’?
Through its extensive and unique experience of infrastructure project work on the African and Asian continents, Aurecon is well aware that many projects undertaken in developing countries still focus solely on delivering infrastructure and public facilities.

Aurecon recognises that it is the people from a community who use, run and maintain these facilities. True sustainable development in a project is a function of whether these people have been successfully empowered with the vision and means to lift their communities out of poverty.  Aurecon considers the local people as assets, which are the foundation of sustainable community development and lasting change. The key to success is identifying and building on existing community strengths to create stronger more self-sustaining communities for the future.

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