Talk and win
17 March 2015 | Republic
Nepal is pursuing second-generation liberal economic policies that encourage private sector participation in national growth. The importance of private sector participation is further highlighted by the fact that it is expected to share two-thirds of around Rs 9,700 billion in investment required for Nepal to graduate to developing country by 2022. Besides, massive investment is required in infrastructure such as hydropower, transportation and telecommunications. Given their complexity, implementation of large-scale projects is always difficult, often inviting risks in developing countries like Nepal. Volatile politics, unstable government and frequent changes in policies, ambiguous laws and "rigid" bureaucracy are key investment obstacles in Nepal. Nevertheless, proper communication with stakeholders can help navigate through such challenges. Lack of it, on the other hand, can stall projects for years, as Nepal has witnessed.
Stakeholders must be on-board right from inception to completion of any project. Sufficient and meaningful engagement generates confidence among stakeholders; and they act as messengers for the project. The stakeholders, particularly those affected by the project, are not only recipients but also project partners, and this partnership needs to be strengthened for project success. A study titled Massage is Clear, conducted by US-based Project Management Institute, a global think-tank on project management, states that projects with effective communicators meet 80 percent of expected goals while those with less effective communicators have only 52 percent achievement against set target. Similarly, the likelihood of completing project on time with highly effective communicators is 71 percent, against 37 percent with less effective communicators. Cost and time overruns can also be minimized with effective communications.
Though communication is integral to project management, most projects focus only on management aspects and stakeholders are put in the backburner. Arranging required resources may not be an issue as the capital, technology and human resources are readily available in this global economy. Partnering with stakeholders throughout the process contributes to the success of mega-projects. The size of project determines complexities and varieties of stakeholders. The larger the project, the greater the complexity. Therefore there should be effective communications to wade through such difficulties. Some stages, including Project Mapping, Environment Impact Assessment, and post-signing of Project Development Agreement (PDA) must have stakeholder engagement. Naturally, locals are wary about potential impact of projects. Therefore, they may put up resistance during initial stages. It is the real test of relationship between the project and stakeholders. The projects can inject confidence or suspicion among the stakeholders at this stage, and it may impact the success of the entire project. Frequent interactions and engagement is the only way to solidify this tenuous relation. The locals demand respect, apart from the benefits, and they should be treated accordingly.
My experience says that the stakeholders can act as project champions and ambassadors if they feel ownership. I participated in a number of stakeholder engagements that Office of Investment Board organized for Upper Karnali and Arun-3 projects. The locals were skeptical in the initial stage, and they esisted the Board's engagement. Political party representatives, civil society groups, project committees and media were replete with suspicion and not much cooperative. However, they were gradually brought on-board following rigorous interaction and engagement. The Board treats them as part of its family and they feel confident to raise their issues with the Board. I have noticed such transformation of perception among stakeholders, and they are the Board's local ambassadors now. Such positive experience can be replicated for other infrastructure projects. The projects must knock the doors of each stakeholder and make them feel honored. The key in project communication is to identify the stakeholders and prioritize them for engagement. Communication strategies can be formulated and proper channels selected accordingly, in line with needs of target stakeholders. Public hearings, Focus Group Discussions, newsletters, road shows, project-related information materials, setting up grievance mechanism offices and timely address of concerns are strategies for reaching out to stakeholders.
Managing the resistance of politically-motivated groups can be a bigger challenge. Such groups are active in imbuing negativity in genuine groups, and they create an atmosphere of fear for project developers. Counter-strategies need to be immediately developed and genuine groups separated from political groups. This done, projects need to intensify engagement with genuine groups who will ultimately counter misinformation of political groups. Genuine stakeholders need to be adequately briefed about potential risks and benefits. A quick task-force should be vigilant and counter rumors through media and local interactions. A report prepared by a global communication agency—Pulse Communication—states that US $ 135 million of every US $1billion spent on project is at risk, and poor communication will be responsible for risk worth US $75 million. It reflects the severity of risk and highlights the significance of proper communication.
In absence of proper communication, projects suffer financially a nd lose their local acceptance. We can't secure support of stakeholders until we properly communicate significance and benefits of the project. Parties to project implementation, mainly developer, should engage stakeholders and address grievances with a ear roadmap for consultations at different stages of project. Various non-governmental organizations, government agencies and international multi-laterals have formulated models of project communications. International Finance Corporation (IFC), a private sector wing of the World Bank Group, has identified eight factors—information disclosure, stakeholder identification and analysis, management functions, reporting to stakeholders, stakeholder involvement in project monitoring, grievance management, negotiation and partnership and stakeholder consultation—for stakeholder engagement. Without creating a strong sense of ownership among stakeholders the developers face a number of challenges. The developers should take the lead role in engaging stakeholders to secure their support.
The author is communication consultant with Investment Board of Nepal