Rosa Kusbiantoro, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

In January 2013, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued an edict on public order and security, demanding that law enforcement resolve all communal conflict "swiftly." This edict attracted widespread criticism for failing to acknowledge that community conflicts are more than a security issue, and that proper resolution requires addressing the root causes of the disagreements. This is particularly true in the case of conflicts related to extractives, agriculture, or infrastructure projects.

The edict reminded me of a TEDx Talk by Ernesto Sirolli, founder of the Sirolli Institute, which specializes in local enterprise facilitation. Sirolli’s talk contains key messages that can help prevent communal conflicts from occurring in the first place, thus avoiding a reactive approach.

Many of us are familiar with the process of community engagement or development: map your stakeholders, conduct consultations, and then develop a plan. However, there are three simple but critical points made by Sirolli, which are crucial to the success of such plans but often overlooked (or ignored):

  1. Consider the stakeholders who aren't in the room. Of course, some attendees will be important and need to be heard, but it’s equally important to take stock of who was absent. For example, did any local entrepreneurs attend? In many cases, it may be few (or none), as they’re busy running their businesses. Find ways to engage missing stakeholders in a manner that works for them.
  2. Ask the right questions. Situations that may seem clear-cut are usually more complicated than they appear. If local communities are not carrying out actions that appear to be legitimate solutions, there is most likely a reason. Respect the local community’s knowledge and don’t make any assumptions. Ask why they are not doing something, what they would like to do instead, and with whom they would like to engage.
  3. Cultivate long-term relationships. Even the great legends that come to mind—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Buffett—had partners. We often, unrealistically, ask local communities to transform into successful business owners, for example, merely by equipping them with basic financial skills and pointing out potential buyers for products they might produce. Nurturing a business and other similar endeavors, anywhere in the world, is daunting and requires significant investments in time and commitment from multiple partners. This is even more true in challenging and isolated environments. If you are investing in a local community, a short-term approach is not enough and may cause, rather than solve, more problems.

You may be already familiar with some (or all) of these points. But I encourage you to take another look at your strategies with fresh eyes—it can go a long way toward avoiding local community engagement pitfalls.