Aug '13

Make it official

Universities push to keep community relations programs going

By Bernard Simon

As community relations (CR) emerges as a crucial part of any mining operation’s success, universities worldwide are finding ways to build a set of internationally recognized qualifications to guide professionals in the field. Four respected universities in Australia, Canada, Chile and South Africa now offer programs that seek to improve the skills of mining (and other resource) professionals in the often-sensitive dealings with local communities and politicians as well as human-rights, environmental and other advocacy groups.

These programs “have helped to reinforce the view that community relations is a profession that requires specialist skills,” says David Brereton, founding director of the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (CSRM), the pioneer in formalized corporate social responsibility education for the industry.

“It’s not just anybody that’s ‘good with people,’ which is how the industry thought about it when we first started,” Brereton adds.

A series of upheavals in mining communities around the world – from last year’s killings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa, to protests against the Pascua-Lama project in Chile, and the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine in southwest Alaska – have underlined the need for community relations expertise.

The university curriculums typically have a heavy emphasis on techniques for building relationships with local communities, especially indigenous people, in a way that benefits both the mining company and the community. Other topics include social impact assessments and codes of conduct. Case studies are a key component.

The University of Queensland program, now in its sixth year, sprang from a growing awareness in Australia that many personnel dealing with community relations – from geologists to former school teachers and journalists – were ill-equipped either to negotiate with outside groups or to champion sound social responsibility policies within their own companies.

Jeffery Davidson, professor of applied mineral economics and mining sustainability at Queen’s University, who helped set up the University of Queensland program says, “Part of the challenge that community relations staff face is the way their role and credibility is seen by their engineer-manager colleagues.” He cites the example of a past colleague at a remote uranium mine in Australia, who was a former meat plant inspector but had extensive connections with aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and “wanted to do something good.” Davidson says such CR staffers are often viewed as “fire fighters,” sent in to deal with difficult situations, but without science, discipline or credentials.

More programs are rolling out

The success of the Australian program has helped spawn post-graduate programs at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, which both launched last year. There has been collaboration between these programs, through staff exchanges and sharing of resources. More recently in May, Wits University in Johannesburg began offering in May a short community ­relations certificate program, comprising four one-week modules. The Wits program is designed and delivered by U.K.-based Synergy Global Consulting and the university’s Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI).

The road to developing these programs and gaining acceptance for them has been a long and at times bumpy one.

Queen’s is looking at ways of tweaking its graduate certificate in community relations to boost enrolment and industry interest. Though enrolment targets were met in 2012, this year has proven more difficult, as professional development budgets in community relations have been slashed. Davidson regrets this approach. He says community relationships for the industry are “increasingly conflictive,” and adds they “are not going away, even if the economy falters.” Enrolments have not been an issue in Australia, Chile and South Africa.

Whereas the University of Queensland program was designed for and attracted mainly community relations field practitioners, at Queen’s the first intake of students included a mix of head office staff, consultants, government employees and non-governmental organization (NGO) people. This meant adapting the curriculum, assignments and even the online discussions to reflect the student body. The Wits program is focused on community relations practice in an African context, and this has been reflected in the makeup of the participants taking the first course.

Universities can complement in-house training

Companies have typically provided their own CR training to employees via short courses from outside consultants. According to Brereton, in-house courses have their place, but there is a lot to be gained from peer-to-peer learning across companies. “One of the reasons people really like the CSRM program is that we bring together people from different companies and they share experiences,” he says. “They actually discover that their experiences are often remarkably similar.” He adds that CR skills apply not only to relations with outside groups but also within a company: “You have to be bringing the rest of the organization along. You have to know how to argue the business case for what you’re doing – how to get human resources and local procurement and so on to change their practices.”

Ed O’Keefe, a Synergy director closely involved in designing the Wits program, says: “We could have developed a kind of Synergy course. But it was very important for us to do it in partnership with an academic institution so that it had that cachet of being a university course.”

Much can also be gained by bringing together students with different backgrounds for either a diploma or certificate program that stretches beyond the usual two- or three-day in-house course. The 30 participants at Wits’s first program included community relations practitioners for oil, gas and mining companies, and also consultants, an official from Kenya’s Human Rights Commission and two representatives of South African traditional authorities. Chilean government mining officials have enrolled in the program at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago for the first time this year.

There is widespread agreement that the success of community relations education hinges on industry involvement and a curriculum focused on day-to-day practice.

Industry cash the key to sustainable future

The Minerals Council of Australia – whose 50 members include such industry giants as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto – has played a pivotal role in the start-up of the CSRM program, including a guarantee to make up any financial losses for the first five years.

Similarly, the Chilean program has benefited from the sponsorship of seven of the biggest companies operating in the country including Anglo American, Antofagasta Minerals, Barrick Gold and Codelco. “To be honest, [finding the support] wasn’t hard, since they were already aware of the need,” says Ignacio Irarrazaval, who heads the program at the Catholic University of Chile.

While Synergy and CSMI are bearing the risk of losses from running the courses at Wits, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti and Xstrata have funded the development of the program, despite the turmoil enveloping the South African mining sector. O’Keefe says this “is a testament to the interest companies have in these issues.”

When Davidson was setting up the Queen’s program, however, the Mining Association of Canada forewarned him that its mandate and resources were not as comprehensive as those from the Minerals Council of Australia. The same kind or degree of support provided by MCA to the University of Queensland during the planning, start-up and operating phases of its program was not available here in Canada. Davidson acknowledges that the Queen’s program may be a “higher risk venture,” and he adds that “this year, enrolments have not been as robust as we would have hoped for, but the university’s commitment to running the program remains firm.”

To try to boost interest, Queen’s is changing things this year, offering its residential week, to be held August 26 to 30, as both a less time-intensive professional development seminar, and as a point of entry into the full graduate certificate program. Students enrolling for just the five days can opt to convert later to the full graduate program if they choose. Davidson hopes that participation in a shorter program – similar to the Wits modules – may be more appealing to companies in Canada.

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