Country Director, Mercy Corps
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: Who do you work for and what do you do?
A: I'm the country director for Mercy Corps in the Republic of Georgia, where our two main programs are the East Georgia Community Mobilization Initiative, which covers the whole of eastern and southern Georgia. And we also have a community investment program, which works along the routes of the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that BP and other oil companies are constructing, and we're doing a community investment program that is targeting specifically the communities affected by the pipeline construction.
Q: What do you do with people affected by the pipeline?
A: We are doing what people would see as a community mobilization program. From our point of view it is building a better relationship between them and BP, where there is plenty of potential for conflicts, and there are plenty of people who are interested in conflict. We have a grant from BP; they are funding our work. An explicit aim of this program is that it addresses community needs, and the process by which we address them also creates a better and less conflictual relationship between the communities directly affected by the pipeline that it passes through and BP.
Fairly clearly, from BP's point of view, that's both a straight commercial interest - they don't want their pipeline being disrupted. But they also do view it as part of what they are increasingly doing: as a reasonable neighbor in their role as a large multinational corporation. It's quite a large program. They're not just painting schools and such, they're doing quite a lot.
Q: What does BP want you to do or what do you do for BP that creates better relationships between the villages where the pipeline will run and the company itself?
A: In a sense, we do what Mercy Corps normally does. We are doing community mobilization through a series of participatory approaches. Individual communities are supported in doing things they want to do to address the priorities that they have raised. The twist is that there is a sort of layer on top of trying to put in place or promote the idea that there are some forums for conflict resolution. Now, we haven't defined in a particularly fixed way what those forums should look like. The sort of common way people indicate they want to do it is that they have an informal group from the district that is called upon if there is a dispute that isn't getting resolved by the normal level of discussion. This is not necessarily the group of the elders, but it's similar to that concept. And that will be charged with and be accepted as having the legitimacy to listen to the different sides of the dispute. And give its opinion.
The other aspect of the conflict is from BP's perspective. They simply want to do what they can to make sure that their expressed intention is of being a good neighbor. They are trying to find a reasonable balance between what they're doing as a business and the effect that's going to have on people. It's not an error-free process by any means.
One of our observations is that the days of rapacious, completely insensitive multinational corporations are gone because there is so much attention paid to them now, and they know that. The wind has changed, and the people at the top of the organizations understand that.Even though this is a large company and this is such a big project, there are mistakes made. They have subcontractors, and then you have a pyramid of the understanding of what they would see as values that they maintain despite being a business gets diluted from one subcontractor to another.
Q: So what would that look like? A mistake means they abused local villagers or they polluted the water system?
A: There are some mistakes in terms of land rights. There are still discussions of whether the land acquisition process is being done properly. There are some mistakes in terms of how the physical structure happens, and how much noise it makes, and who gets hired. That's a big source of conflict - whether the hiring is perceived to be done equitably, etcetera.
One of the challenges for us is that we're not involved in that, we're not hiring people. We're doing a community development program. We are trying to build a greater understanding and a positive relationship between the different actors, and on the other hand we're also quite clear that we're not building the pipeline. That's not our problem, so we juggle what can occasionally be seen as conflicting, at least sort of opposing, concepts. We accept responsibility to build a greater consensus, and have agreed on a view of how it's going to work, but there are a lot of things that we don't have control over.
Q: So you don't have control over the hiring and things that might lead to conflict, but you do have to deal with the fall out?
A: Yes, we do.
Q: Are you an ombudsman? Do you do mediations, community processes with the BP exec that comes in and there are agreements processes? What does it look like?
A: We're not so much ombudsmen. They actually have community liaison officers, and what we're increasingly doing is making sure that whenever we see an opportunity for getting those officers informed about what's going on, we do that. Because what has happened is that the communities have basically tried to lie and say Mercy Corps is not doing this properly and we are. So then they go to the community liaison officer, who then sort of comes together and says, "You're not doing it properly." And we say, "Yes we are and this is how we're going to do it." So it's more, our main tool is simply facilitation dialogue and conversation that needs to go on between the communities and the contractors, communities and BP.
It's not our role, and we have absolutely no leverage over the contractors. BP hired them to build the pipeline and they're building it. In practice what we're trying to do is make sure that all sides are polled as to what they committed to and in immediate terms what are the contractors' obligations. We're not openly playing a role of ombudsmen, but it is useful that we use our influence as a respected partner of BP which gives us credibility because we've achieved an enormous amount in a very short period of time and very professionally. They know that we are completely straight in what we're doing. We use that to gently nudge them to try and keep their eyes open a bit more, when we have an opinion, it's a sound one, and that when we say, 'Well, maybe the contractor's missing this bit. Maybe not deliberately, but this isn't being done well.' They will listen to us because we have their respect. So we're using our reputation that we have as a way of influencing other people, but it's not a strict part of our mandate.
Q: It sounds like a very hard position to be in, to play somewhere in between having some influence over the BP implementation of their plans versus being the victim of some contractors' irresponsible tactics and then people look at Mercy Corps and say, 'Well they're not doing what they're supposed to.' It just seems like an impossible pickle that you are in.
A: It could be what saves us is that we are trusted by the communities because we work very hard with them, we work very close to them.
Q: How do you get that trust? I'm sure the first question they ask is who pays you, and you say BP, and they say what are you doing here, how do you get that trust back?
A: Well, they're interested in the fact that we have a large grant to do community investment in their communities, so they know that real politick at that level, we and them need to play ball because they'll get something out of our grants. There's at least some incentive.
On the other hand, some of the communities know very well that, OK large companies will tend to try to just buy their way out of trouble and the squeaky wheel gets more oil syndrome. We've tried very hard to counter that, because we can't work on the squeaky wheel approach to things. We've just done a lot of hard work at the grassroots that people trust us. They know that our staff is there day in, day out, and when we say we'll do something, we'll do it. They know that we'll be completely honest about the resources we do have and the resources we don't have. And they know that we're not responsible for hiring, so it's a question of legwork and a lot of it. Being consistent and being reliable, when we have some big meeting and say, 'We'll come back tomorrow and talk tomorrow with this and this group,' that we are back the next day. We don't miss it, and we never miss an appointment, and we're always on time.
We're always up front, and we deliver. When we say this is prepared as a reasonable proposal and it was approved by whomever needs to approve it, you will have the money in your bank account within two days, and it is in their account in two days. It's building credibility because we always follow through with exactly what we said we'd do.
Q: So community investment means things like schools, drainage, electricity, micro credit, things like that?
A: All of those, and also agriculture, energy efficiency. We're trying to build in a social services network aspect to it, because part of the area the pipeline goes through is dominated by old people. It's an area where there are a lot of Greek families, and it's just the old people there. The real issues in that particular district are sort of underlying the need for clean water, whatever, is that you've got this very skewed demography there, and we have to try to build up a sustainable social service network that will compensate for some of the things not provided by the government because the government has no tax base so it's not going to get you very far to bang on the government about providing pensions.
The pension anyway is worth about six dollars a month, so it's a meaningless thing. It almost costs you more to go and collect it than you can buy it. That's an addition. The main trust of all of our work, and this and the other large program we do in Georgia, is that it's an expression of prioritization by the communities of what they're interested in. Some communities want to do what they call cultural centers, which is more like your community center, might be sports or whatever. In many ways it's replaced the church. In America, we have shopping malls, but you don't have shopping malls in these villages so you have a cultural center instead and that's where the weddings happens, they practice judo, whatever else they do.
In another village, they wanted to put a big fence around their graveyard, and that was thing they wanted to do. To be honest I couldn't see it fitting into our ideas about the most vulnerable, because by the time you're dead you're past vulnerable, but anyway, that's what they wanted to do. So we said, 'OK if that's your priority.' I think in the end the process through which we try and understand what people's priorities are is sort of sufficiently rigorous that we are confident that it hasn't been hijacked by a special interest group, so this represents the genuine consensus of what they want to do, and what they think they have some resources to contribute to achieving. So we say 'OK, we'll go ahead and start.' We have no real technical agenda as such.
Q: The beneficiaries are primarily along the corridor of the pipeline, because they are the ones most affected, and to whom BP feels most responsible. What about communities that are just outside the range of the effect of BP? Surely they must be resentful, or try to get a piece of their own. How do you deal with people who want to spoil the projects you are doing from the outside? Has that happened? Have people from another town said 'What about us?'
A: It is an issue. I mean the defined line is 2 kilometers either side of the pipeline.
Q: Not very big.
A: No, it's not. What we've done is firstly, some of the things we've put in our project design allows us to spread out beyond that. We've talked about supporting some schools that are not exactly in the four kilometer-wide corridor, and also doing some things that are directly for those communities that are outside the corridor. The other thing that we're doing is we're, along with others, pressuring BP that this pipeline it's an asset of Georgia, not an asset of these communities. It could have gone somewhere else, and then another set of communities. Ultimately, it's about their investment in Georgia as a whole.
So we've been pressuring them that they have to over the longer term look at more significant investments in the whole of Georgia. Yes, it's legitimate spending three years doing a community investment program along the pipeline, because it's going to be three years of digging, building, and scraping. That's very legitimate. Pipeline construction is very noisy and dusty, and they certainly deserve some temporary compensation. That's fair enough.
Beyond that, once the pipeline is operational, then they should be doing things that are taking the whole of Georgia as their entry point. They are, to be fair to them, I hate to be fair to BP. For an oil company, they are generally way out in front in terms of this sort of thing. They are looking at a 10-, 15-year investment program, they haven't decided on what sectors, but for the whole of Georgia, that's not about this pipeline. That's progress, because 10, 15 years ago they probably wouldn't have considered that, and there wouldn't have been the pressure for them to do that.
Q: But do you get episodes when people from other towns come in and say what about us? What'll you do for us? Do they sabotage the projects that are going on already? By infusing all that capital into those peripheral villages that around the pipeline do you shake up the social structure and cause more conflict?
A: What actually happens still is some people in the communities are still against the pipelineand it's a tactic on their part to get more money for their village. And I'm sorry to say that in some cases BP has sort of acquiesced to that, which actually makes work a lot harder. We've come in very clearly making very open what we've got, what resources we have, how we're dividing it up.
Part of it is in wide bands, per head population formula for the raw number of what resources can be worked with for a community. Then when you get a squeaky community or a small group in the community still saying we're going to lie down in front of the tractors, which they do. We're frustrated a little bit that we think in the end we can address those issues, basically because they are a minority in the village and people do know and they know that we're being very fair with them, they're getting a fair amount of development resources in their village that in some ways there's not a great strength to the argument they are making. And if there are particular individual concerns then they can probably get them better addressed through other means and, this is sort of knee jerk, throwing yourself in front of the digger is probably not going to address your concern.
In one case, there are some houses that are very, very near where the physical building is going to take place. Well, the answer that we propose is going to be OK, you give a winterization drum, which basically means you double glaze their homes. Because yesterday we would have had a lot of noise. Because these things are the size of a house so to speak, and that's the decision. That particular row of houses, they are like 50 meters from where it'll be digging. There are ways to get around that. It's an issue of time. We can't solve it immediately.