Moving at the Speed of Trust: Establishing Company Programs in Complex Environments

Speed of Trust

When establishing a presence in high risk or complex environments, investing foreign enterprises would do best to consider the maximum utilization of local personnel for the implementation of their programs. While complex environments take many forms (conflict, post-conflict, natural disasters, ethnic or religious tensions, political transition, diminished rule of law, etc.), each one possesses a mix-ratio of instability drivers that is specific to the local population at hand. The common thread that runs through each of these community situations, however, is that no matter what the local circumstances, establishing trust with impacted local communities is a baseline prerequisite for a successful company program.   Achieving and maintaining local community trust in a complex environment will only occur – and last – with a thoughtful, deliberate community engagement effort on the part of the firm. Sometimes referred to as “moving at the speed of trust” a company’s level of trust with a local community depends both on what the company does and fails to do. And while never easy – the company’s best foot forward usually comes from a locally delivered step. The following points are a few highlights of the well-established considerations when working with local communities in complex environments.

The expatriate footprint is best left invisible.

In areas of high-risk particularly, one primary factor for fostering local trust is to operate from the maxim that the expatriate footprint is best left invisible. Much has been written of the expatriate “three cups of tea” approach to conducting local community engagement in areas of high of insecurity. In these environments, expatriates that travel openly often do so at great personal risk. Certainly the use of accompanying protective security by these expatriates is prudent and warranted to prevent potential abductions or worse. However, by the same token, foreigners that utilize protective security must also take great care in the selection, practices, and oversight of their chosen protective security provider, particularly in relation to the local population. Additionally, in many high-risk environments, the expat is often transitory in his or her community engagement role, staying in the local “hardship” environment for some months, weeks, or even days before leaving the area and “parachuting in” at a later time or switching out with a replacement. Efforts to develop local relationships, knowledge, and trust-building efforts begin all over again with every switch out. For these (and several other) reasons the use of expatriates to conduct sustained community engagement in high-risk environments is less than ideal.

Organizations that take these lessons to heart know that local staff provide the truest interpretation of the local dynamics and conflict-drivers for any given community, as well as providing the most effective interface to establish, build, and maintain trust. Effective community engagement operates from a system of mutual respect; while the business has its goals to achieve, the local community – often times at both formal and informal levels – does as well. Knowing how to read and interpret these needs is essential and the local community engagement manager will always get this better then the expatriate community engagement manager (no matter how many times he/she has “worked in the field”).

Communities can best determine and express their own needs.

Communities also best determine and express their own needs. I am reminded of a well-meaning firm that built houses with “modern” amenities for a community only to find that the houses were abandoned after a short time because the residents preferred their traditional housing. Had a local community engagement staff been in place it is doubtful that the decision to build houses (instead of what the community truly wanted) would have occurred.

Supporting the establishment of community engagement councils facilitates open dialogue between the community and the business operations. Councils should be representative of ALL members of the community and should have direct and open access to local business officials to ensure an effective complaints mechanism for the community to address ongoing and future concerns regarding business activities. Since communities are not monolithic and differing factions need to be heard, companies will also gain a better understanding of the critical local political dynamics by fostering inclusive community engagement councils.

Additionally, understanding the power dynamics within a community is important, i.e. speak to local leaders but also find ways of engaging with those who may be more marginalized, like women or other minority groups. Not only will a local community engagement manager have a much greater sense of the various groups that constitute an impacted community, he/she will be much more effective in connecting with them.

Effective community engagement extends beyond the project’s immediate vicinity.

Social and economic connections among geographically contiguous communities are often very strong. When firms engage with local communities in the areas directly impacted by their business operations, they should also plan to understand and work with other additional communities in the surrounding vicinity. Here, too, local team members will provide the best insight to facilitate engagement with all impacted communities.

Working with public security forces requires careful and deliberate actions.

While companies must always coordinate their activities with local police and security forces, in some cases these forces are contributors to local instability. Project leaders should always maintain a close dialogue with their in-country embassy staff, such as the assigned Regional Security Officer, as well as being clear in their commitment to international normative standards regarding human rights and the use of force. When establishing relations with local public security forces companies should share their corporate human rights policies and local security protocols to communicate standards of behavior and transparency, as well as to demonstrate adherence to local, national, and international law and security best practices.

When projects utilize private security providers, the use of local guard forces employed from the local population is essential to maximizing trust and acceptance with the local population. Companies should ensure that guards are adequately vetted and trained, and understand the companies’ commitment to ensuring respect of the local population’s rights by security providers, as detailed in key standards for private security operations, such as the International Code of Conduct for Private Service Providers and the ANSI/ASIS PSC.1 Management System for Quality of Private Security Company Operations (see below).

Coordinate and engage with established NGOs operating in the area.

International NGOs will be among the first organizations to operate in areas of transition, often having years of on the ground experience in the local environment. Informal engagement and liaising with NGOs can be quite valuable in several areas. Companies will find that NGOs have a wealth of local knowledge and will usually be able to provide “ground truth” of a local environment. In turn, NGOs will normally appreciate a company’s efforts to engage and coordinate with them on planned program efforts for community engagement in areas where both company and NGO programs are active. International NGOs also tend to have strong ongoing relationships with local NGOs and individuals and in many cases can make introductions for potential partnering or hiring requirements for local technical staff.

While establishing business operations in complex environments is not new, the normative standards and guidelines to consider for these operations are.

Implementing commercial projects in complex or high-risk environments is not new, but the standards and best practice approaches that companies now utilize to build trust with local populations have evolved. While the above practices focus to the benefits of localization to support effective community engagement plans, new standards and guidelines for managing projects in complex environment are now easily accessible for companies to consider when designing and implementing their business programs in high-risk environments. These standards include the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the ANSI/ASIS PSC.1-2012 Management System for Quality of Private Security Company Operations, and the DCAF/ICRC Toolkit for Addressing Security and Human Rights Challenges in Complex Environments.