Without meaningful community engagement, infrastructure development projects will fail

“Communities are an integral part of any infrastructure and construction project. They must be seen as rightful participants and the different voices that exist in every community need to be heard. Women; the youth; the aged; the disabled; etc. Firms and contractors need to be prepared to spend time on meaningful and effective public participation. Developing enterprise and supplier development programmes for every project; so that they can subcontract to local SMEs. Leave a legacy when the project finishes and they leave the area.”

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This is according to Andrew Modise who has 25 years’ experience in stakeholder management and supports the infrastructure development and construction sectors with training and stakeholder engagement.

Community engagement process

“Community engagement is not an event, it is a process and it takes time. The days of only focusing on project timelines, working against your gantt chart until completion, are long gone,” he says.

Modise explains that, “Many companies have developed sophisticated project management systems and processes to conceptualise, plan and implement construction projects. The same companies have become adept in managing project risks. However, they have ignored to either include community engagement as part of the project planning process or to regard community risk as part of overall project risk.

“The perceptions of social marginalisation and feelings of exclusion by communities are aggravated by the lack of or inadequate public service delivery. Therefore, it is critical for project managers to recognise local communities as central stakeholders. In an environment of social activism, the exclusion or inclusion of communities will determine whether a project fails or succeeds.”

Identify specific community services

Modise believes that over and above general labour, the contractor running the project needs to identify services and roles that the community can fulfil. “This can include cleaning, transport services, landscaping services, digging trenches, water supply, etc. It also needs to help capacitate the community to provide equipment and meaningful services. In some instances, especially in remote areas, a local community simply may not have the required skills, capital or equipment. Companies need to consider training and enterprise development, interventions that will empower the community beyond the life-span of the project.”

“Projects are not always clean cut,” he says. “A 10-kilometre road in a peri-urban area may traverse three different wards within one municipality, or even more than one municipality. This means that several communities need to be engaged.”

Modise also believes there is a big gap in the law. “Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are required before a project can begin. At the EIA stage, a notice is put up to invite communities to a meeting, not all the right community members attend, there is a lot of technical speak that not everybody understands, and then the box is ticked to say public participation has happened. Two years later when the project starts, the company wonders why the community is not happy!”

“Every infrastructure development project is an opportunity for transformation at a grassroots level. If you don’t engage communities properly, you are not going to finish your project and the potential for economic upliftment that existed at the outset will be dashed.”

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