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Independent expert offers his views on the program of local consultations - Jim Chamberlain

March 10, 2005

Nam Theun 2 and Local Consultations:  Transparent, Balanced, and Meaningful

An international expert offers his views
As part of the preparation process for the proposed Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, an extensive program of local consultations has been carried out by the Government of Lao PDR and the private sector developers (NTPC – the Nam Theun 2 Power Company) over the past year – building on previous years of consultations. To ensure the process met its goals of being transparent, balanced, and meaningful, Jim Chamberlain, an independent consultant, was hired by the World Bank to oversee the process of consultations. Chamberlain and his Thai counterpart Mr. Anek Nakabutr, who focused on training government officials on participatory consultations, presented a summary of their experience with these consultations during the round of international workshops held to discuss the project in Bangkok, Tokyo, Paris, Washington DC, and Vientiane in the fall of 2004. 
Chamberlain’s paper, Proposed Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project: Assessing Quality of the Local Consultations, Final Report (pdf), details his experiences and views on the consultation process.

I asked Jim some questions about his experience.

Question:  Jim, you have lived in Laos for over 30 years, have a Ph.D. in cognitive anthropology, and are a well respected expert on Laos.  What started your fascination with this country?

I came here in 1965, to work with International Volunteer Services (similar to the Peace Corps) on some basic humanitarian and development work.  And I stayed and have lived here ever since – although I have spent some time outside the country from time to time.

Question: You were hired in early 2004 by the World Bank to oversee the local consultations that are being undertaken for the proposed Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric project. Was this your first exposure to Nam Theun 2, or to the local consultations?

If you live in Laos, chances are pretty high that you will know about Nam Theun 2. It has been a government priority for quite a few years, and has been studied by so many different groups, consultants, with many different firms coming in and out.   Some people here say it’s the most studied development project, at least in Asia.

I first got involved with the consultations around Nam Theun 2 in 1995/1996, when I worked on a socio-economic cultural study which looked at the conditions on the plateau; and again in 1997. These consultations have been a continuous process – important for the Government and developers to ensure everyone is fully aware – but producing a sense of “consultation fatigue” among villagers, with some anxiety and frustration. People are anxious to see changes, and are concerned that they’ll benefit.

Question:  How has the process changed or evolved, in your opinion?  What are some of the biggest changes?
In the background paper which I prepared for the workshops and recently finalized, I try to make a comparison between the progress made previously and these latest consultations done in 2004. The World Bank reviewed the process undertaken thus far and noted that although more than 200 public consultations were documented as being carried out between 1996 and 2001, most of these were in the 1996-1997 period, when most of the basic socioeconomic and cultural research was being undertaken by CARE and IUCN (World Conservation Union), and were concentrated on the Nakai Plateau. 

While these consultations and recommendations of stakeholders did influence the design of the resettlement plan (on such matters as locations for resettlement, house design, village layout, livelihood models, compensation plan and design of the downstream channel), there did seem to be a bias towards promoting the positive benefits of the project while the negative impacts were largely ignored. Thus, it was often concluded that affected peoples were not provided a balanced view of the project. (for more on this assessment, please see the report). 
We wanted to make sure that this round [of consultations] addressed those gaps, which is why we set three guiding principles – transparency, balance, and meaningfulness.  In the paper I go into more detail on each of these, and the guidelines we established for assessing their achievement.

Quickly, though, I do need to say that this time around there seemed to be a stronger emphasis on the development impacts of this project, and very careful attention given to working through of options for the villagers affected.  From the very first consultation which I observed, this seems to be the biggest difference.

Villagers are saying today that things have improved (with the consultation process). The standards of quality are not uniform, but people are better informed. There is much more thorough information available, a better base established for collecting and responding to comments – plus a society that is changing gradually and becoming increasingly open.
As an anthropologist, I would put forth that, for villagers, this process doesn’t represent a major change in the thinking process.  These are villagers – farmers and fishermen; they are used to taking risks. They are used to having back-up plans – they have to have those systems in place or they wouldn’t be able to survive. This is indigenous knowledge that can’t be taught, but is learned through generations and passed down. They learn how to adapt and change; their technologies in dealing with the external world are slower in coming. They know how to farm, how to raise fish, how to live off their surroundings – if their environment is going to be affected (which it may well be), they want to know their options.

Q:  Was there anything in particular, in your experience in overseeing this process, which stood out as something surprising or unexpected?

Surprised?  I am surprised, frankly, by the openness – the degree to which villagers are being critical, openly expressing themselves, being open about wanting to know their options. Outsiders are skeptical.  I keep getting asked, “Are people participating?”   But the answer is, yes.  The village facilitators are being trained; women are exercising an increasing voice; the small group discussions are active; the village forum is attended by all households in the community; and people are expressing their views, with the government officials speaking less and the villagers speaking more (though getting the government official to speak less remains a challenge – a situation not just reserved for Laos!). I think attitudes are changing with district officials/government staff.  On the last day of each of the village consultations is a time for self-assessment, and (government staff) acknowledgement of the importance of listening more and talking less is consistent across the villages.  Villagers as well are showing higher levels of involvement and inclusion, in terms of content. The negatives are shared, and there is also more awareness being expressed towards ethnic issues and differences.
I should add here that my job was made a lot easier by the work done by my colleague, Khun Anek. Khun Anek and his Thai colleagues worked intensively with government and project officials to translate the dense project documents into easily understood materials featuring posters, diagrams, and cartoons.  They trained village facilitators and local district officials in participatory consultations and were instrumental in helping to set up a system of two-way communication, the emphasis on both the positive and negative aspects of the project, discussion of proposed mitigation measures and information on planned grievance procedures. With the Thai and Lao languages so closely linked, it really was a great example of partnership across borders.

Q: As a long time resident of Laos, what other kinds of changes do you see occurring?

Things are changing in the country. These kinds of participatory processes are becoming a new way of government intervention.  One advantage that Laos has is that district level officials are from the villages themselves; they are not, as is the case in some other countries, sent in from central capitals to administer over local areas. They are not removed from the villagers but rather will have often grown up with them, speak the same language – this makes setting up a participatory process easier.
Another positive impact has been increasing exposure of people to the outside world through the media, through television – particularly Thai television. It is deceptive, so many people see it as a closed communist society but on the ground it is not.   The government can’t control the information coming in, and they haven’t seemed to really try.  There is increasing exposure to new ideas, new ways of thinking, that makes up for some of the past restrictions.  It’s both a gradual change and a quick and abrupt one – because of the economic situation, increasing activity and dynamism. Vietnam and Thailand as neighbors are a big influence.  There is a desire internally to take advantage of increasing access to markets, to become a bigger part of the region, and to manage the economic transition well.
The fact that Laos hosted the ASEAN Summit last November means there is a certain amount of newfound confidence within the government to be a contributing partner to the region. They don’t want to be left behind. This keeps up the international pressure to reform internally and play a bigger role on the regional stage.  It will help them internationalize.  Nam Theun 2 also seems to be providing a positive incentive to change, to become more open.  Look at the government’s participation in the international workshops, their willingness to go on the international stage and defend and debate the project with many different groups, some of whom are openly opposed to the project.

Q: You’ve been engaged in this process for over a year, have observed as villagers and district officials are trained in participatory processes, as villagers spend three days learning and discussing the project and their livelihood options, the positive and negative impacts, using charts and graphs and pictures and small working groups to discuss issues in depth and come to a better understanding of their options and how to express them.  What are the implications for this, as we move forward?

I think we really need to try very hard to maintain the momentum. District people need to remain engaged.  Village facilitators need to remain engaged – and we need to find a way to work these newly trained facilitators into forming a new kind of social structure, a budding institution trained in participatory process and knowledgeable about the project.  We are interested in how we can use this knowledge and expertise into setting up a kind of grassroots mechanism that can be a model for community and local level planning.
It’s very interesting; the average complaint and concern we hear expressed throughout these villages – whether they are in the Nakai Plateau, downstream in the Xe Bang Fai area, or in the protected area/watershed -- is not physical and not material.   They are worried about the social structure, the space, the intangibles.  It’s hard for them to explain.  Buffalo, for example, which may be affected by reduction of grazing grounds, are a concern not just for their loss as an economic entity, but also as a symbol of the Lao social structure. Buffalo designate wealth and prestige in society – and to affect people’s buffalo tribes has much deeper ramifications than economic.  The project is attempting to address this, but I would guess that this is something that would not have come out as clearly had efforts not been made to really get to the heart of the issues important to the villagers.