What Corporations Neglect in Conflicts with Communities

Did you ever see the movie Erin Brockovich? I LOVE that movie. In it, Julia Roberts plays a single mom who works for a law firm and discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric has been covering up its contamination of nearby residential properties. In my favorite scene, her boss, lawyer Ed Masri, is trying to persuade an affected family to let him represent them. They seem skeptical, and only after Brockovich’s words of empathy for the family do they agree. Then, with the papers signed, the mom of the family offers Bundt cake and some coffee. Masri starts to explain he doesn’t have time, but Brockovich leans over to him and whispers, “Have a f**king cup of coffee, Ed!”

It’s not only in the movies that lawyers and many others underestimate the importance of empathy, trust building, and relationships. And it’s certainly not only in the movies that companies, especially in the extractive sector, find themselves accused of harming neighboring communities–whether they’re guilty or innocent of the charges. I spoke recently with an employee of one company that was being dragged through the mud for allegedly displacing an indigenous community in another country. He earnestly explained why the claims were false and the company had acted properly… but he also acknowledged that the community’s opposition could quite possibly halt the company’s huge project. You can be right, I told him, but still be screwed.

His company is not alone. Conflict between corporations and communities is pervasive, especially in certain critical areas such as the Niger Delta. In fact, it can turn violent and even, as in the case of a copper mine in Papua New Guinea, contribute to civil war. (This war eventually ended with a peace process culminating in 2001.)

All too often, the response of corporate representatives is to explain in rights-based terms why they are right: how they followed all laws and regulations and company policies and human rights standards and Voluntary Principles and so on. Or they might decide negotiation is worthwhile, so they essentially pose the question, “What do you want?” (translation: “How much money do we need to throw at you to make you go away?”) and wonder why the attempt is not well received.

The missing ingredient, friends and upstanding corporate citizens, is relationships.

Of course there are many factors that can make corporate-community relations challenging: cultural and maybe language differences, history, power asymmetries, the roles of national and local governments and laws and law enforcement and private security, etc. But the importance of relationships is pretty much universal. That means you don’t just pull the aggrieved community members into a fancy conference room and try to start trading offers and counteroffers. Instead, you spend time, take a tour, share a meal, listen to their stories, understand why they don’t trust–even if their past bad experiences were not caused by your company!!–and show genuine interest in them as fellow human beings. This is not just once: follow through on your commitments, stay in touch, invest in constructive community engagement, even transformational engagement (read also how corporations can help in conflict transformation). This may be costly, but the costs of conflict are probably higher. It is a worthwhile investment.

In other words, slow down and “Have a f**king cup of coffee”!

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