An Environmental and Social (ES) assessment is an incredibly valuable tool for identifying potential risks and benefits associated with proposed project designs. The development community utilizes ES assessment data to reshape proposed interventions. In fact, the best ES assessment reports enable the project developer to quickly and easily understand risks, consequences of proposed actions, and hidden benefits to modify designs to achieve break through or quantum intervention outcomes.
More recently, risk assessors acknowledge that social, economic, and political inclusion issues could have a significant impact on the attainment of proposed program outcomes. As such, ES assessment teams have begun to include this topic in risk profiles. For instance, Obbagy Consulting conducted an ES assessment for a World Bank-funded energy project in Uganda and sought information on inclusion by reaching out to marginalized groups and communities to learn about potential project impacts and suggestions for improving the design of the project to reduce unintended consequences. We utilized a workshop in Kampala, Uganda to validate the information received and obtained sufficient data to document in an ES assessment report.
Although Obbagy Consulting had some success in reviewing social, economic, and political inclusion, increasing the scope, duration and team size of an ES assessment to review a broad range of issues most likely is not a viable pathway forward. The return of investment begins to diminish as a function of the time required to schedule and manage assessment team member activities. An alternative approach may be needed.
These attributes provide a pathway forward to maintain the value of ES assessments as part of the development process, as the need to increase the scope increases to improve a project’s return on investment. The assessment team needs to:
- Focus on maintaining / improving quality of the proposed project, and not on undertaking a complete and detailed evaluation of scope issues.
- Invite key players to attend a workshop to review current reality, proposed project risk, benefits and outcomes, and identify key leverage opportunities for moving forward with the intervention. In other words, assessment teams should conduct a structured deliberation exercise to identify critical issues and pathways ensuring equal consideration of stakeholder expectations to minimize oversight of key risks or benefits. Collective feedback may point out risks and perceptions that need to be addressed or changed, better ways the project could be implemented, or previously unrecognized mutual interests.
- Compile best practices information for proposed project from experts. Rank potential risks and benefits using a scale that highlights short term and long-term outcomes, and probabilities of occurrence. This assessment tactic helps facilitate the identification of potential issues associated with a broad assessment scope.
- Determine if any “Unwritten Rules” create unintended side effects that adversely impact proposed project performance outcomes.
- Focus recommendations on true aspirations—a shared vision of future project benefits future, not just relief from identified problems.
The time is now to be bold and embrace discussions about new approaches for conducting ES assessments. Practitioners can help ensure ES assessments create value by doing things differently or simply allowing all issues “discovered” an equal opportunity to be aired and discussed. The goal is to achieve effective project risk management so that development dollars create opportunities, better living conditions, and security for people around the world.