Unpacking the Blackbox of Impact Assessment Reportage: ESHIA/SEA/CIA as Actionable Intelligence

“Critical Analysis is the cornerstone for gap assessment and a starting point for change”

Environmental, Health and Social Impact Assessment (ESHIA)is the dominant epistemic paradigm to assess and evaluate the impacts of developmental interventions in the infrastructure arena globally from power plants to ports. However, Sustainability Community is usually too stuck up in a system better suited for the 1980s. Clients are rapidly digitizing and have the same data access but no time to implement it themselves. Workforce’s are shrinking across consulting, the only professionals in demand are T-shaped personnel with the right blend of science and commerce, which is a delicate balance. The current situation, however, is that access to cutting-edge scientific breakthrough is limited to the university research lab, and regulators with institutional inertia are the biggest laggards in this ecosystem. There are thousands of exceptional research papers made available every year to the practitioner space from academia with primary data readily accessible for modeling inputs and rich context for impact assessment.

The infrastructure space is booming in Africa, China, India, and Latin America, where Consultants are falling short of the delivery expectations of the community of stakeholders with mediocre actionable engineering and social science methods. The emerging markets have contexts and realities which call out for newer frameworks for impact assessment, addressing their unique post-colonial histories and developmental trajectories. The matrices of impact assessment are framed from institutions in the western world, given my extensive review of ESHIA literature with prominent names in the canon such as Lawrence, Therivel, Vanclay rather than researchers from the global south. I guess it is time for experts from the global south to craft better sustainability frameworks for capturing local realities rather than documenting the genealogy of National Environmental Policy Act 1970 (which first mandated an EIA) to the implementation of best practice legislation (more copy paste) to the now redundant term, the developing world. How knowledge is generated and developed as a vital impact on how knowledge is applied. The epistemology of impact assessment is hardly critically reviewed by scholars. Critical Analysis is the cornerstone for gap assessment and a starting point for change.

I had recently read a book by BangladeshiGeographers in Australian universities writing a book on feedback regarding Social Impact Assessment in Bangladesh. I could not find any how the SIA and the broader EIA instrument could be localized with the critical socio-ecological scenario of climate change irreversibly impacting communities in the country. Social Impact Assessments (SIA) are populated with socio-economic indicator data from the local census databook, with few trends that are mapped and participation of local voices through community engagement that is somewhat limited via focus group discussions and town halls, depending on the Scope of work of the project. The scope of Work (SoW) is ‘consultase’ for the boundary conditions of the ESHIA project as per the mandated Terms of Reference (ToR). However, the deeper nuanced historical context is amiss, with the whys and the how’s of the developmental intervention unanswered.  These are the gaps that future work should address with Applied History as a case study, invoking Historian Niall Ferguson, appeal to the policy community through a significant project at Belfar Institute ofInternational Affairs at Harvard University.

The textbook limitations of environmental consulting projects are well known with scope creep, bleeding budgets, and single-dimensional staff. Capacity building is a significant issue, with consulting professionals struggling to upskill as the technologies and societies are perennially evolving around them. With commercial and time constraints in this recessionary era, I would admit as an experienced practitioner, it is easier said than done.

Engineering and Sustainability Consultants need to understand that science, commerce, law and the community are nodes on the asynchronous plane, rather than on different hierarchies of effort, space, and scale. Has one ever thought how much of data is trapped within EIA reports, which offer so much actionable intelligence for the entire environmental ecosystem? Silos are passé, Consultants need to be tri-sector athletes, (drawing on Joseph Nye’s Harvard Business Review terminology) to catalyze impact and capture and transmit the best value to projects in the best schedule at optimal costs.

Knowledge trapped in ESHIA reports or scientific research papers need to be unpacked for policy and the project implementation space. There are enough research reports to fill up multiple libraries but not enough people nor time to distill these insights for better environmental and development sector work. 

Maybe the translation of the existing data into action is the opportunity the knowledge mediators/brokers aka consultants have missed in the ecosystem? Nifty data visualization on GIS Platforms and cool GUI could make decision making faster through relatable sense-making of the data available. Imagination is sometimes very handy to make better use of the information available in the public domain for better project level implementation. The consultant community could have to shrug off its disdain for the research sector with a far-reaching embrace of science as a social institution, in a Mertonian sense to frame solutions fit for 2019.

P.N: ESHIA: Environmental Social Health Impact Assessment, CIA: Cultural Impact Assessment/Cultural Influence Assessment, SEA: Strategic Environment Assessment

(Manishankar Prasad)

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