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Opinion & Analysis

Why do communities always feel cheated?

This past week I visited Turkana yet again. The flight from Wilson Airport was full, evidence of heightened activity in Lodwar, our destination.

On arrival at Lodwar airstrip and driving into town one confirms infrastructural developments taking place within the town.

My trip to Turkana was to participate in a conference organised by Friends of Lake Turkana, a local CSO with support from Canadian International Development Agency.

The theme of the conference centred on a Governance Agenda for Natural Resource Management in Turkana.

The meeting brought together the leadership of the county represented by the governor, the deputy governor and members of their executive, representatives of Tullow Oil and Africa Oil; civil society; local communities; development partners and other stakeholders.

I chaired a panel on transparency and accountability. As the moderator of the session, one of the questions I posed to the panelists was why local communities always feel cheated when natural resource extraction and other mega projects take place and what should be done to address this state of affairs.

In my view the above question is fundamental. The Constitution provides that investment in natural resources must benefit local communities. In practice though adhering to this basic constitutional requirement has largely remained elusive.

In pubic discourse, both the national government and investors will hail the positive outcomes and dividends expected from natural resource extraction.

However, if one takes the experience of the local communities in Kenya, all they see and talk about are the problems they face as a result of the discoveries of oil, the expectations that have either not been met or only very partially met, their lifestyles that have been disrupted, the sudden increase in cost of living and other ills.

From the above, it emerges that either the communities are always unrealistic in their expectations and assessments, the extractive industry is detrimental to the interests of local communities or that the engagements proceed on the basis of false premises and lack of clarity.

At the panel discussions referred to above the emerging consensus was that failure to consult and meaningfully involve local communities in all stages of decision-making and implementation of projects in the extractive industry plays a big part in shaping the current views and perspectives of local communities.

In most instances, government proceeds based on what they think is best for the country, which is to extract the natural resource and use the proceeds from it to improve the levels of economic development and provide basic services.

However, very little thought and action is given to explaining to communities the benefits and challenges with a view to involving them in the process of determining how to proceed.

They are invariably starved of information. The Constitution in several Articles underscores the importance of public participation.

Despite this, however, Public Participation is still in most instances episodic, shallow and poorly structured. It is rarely intended to affect the direction of a decision.

Surprisingly even county governments where the resources are located complain of lack of sufficient information on the operations relating to extractives and their meaningful involvement in critical decisions.

As a country, it is necessary to ensure that we address the lopsided manner in which we take community views into account in investment processes regarding natural resources.

We have to provide for their views to be sought, captured, analysed and taken into account. This may involve addressing concerns around language of consultation, methodologies for consultations, timelines and supply of information in an easy to consume manner to ensure that communities’ views are informed.

Governments at both the national and county level also need to realise that they are not the people. They need to allow the herdsman, Mama Mboga and the young teenager to be appraised of developments, input into and shade decisions and share in the dividends from natural resource extraction.

Unless we do so communities will justifiably continue to feel cheated even when the decisions made could in some way benefit them.

Dr Odote is a senior lecturer, Centre For Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy(CASELAP), University of Nairobi.

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