Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has existed for 30 years. During its evolution, public involvement in the EIA process has become a key criterion that distinguishes EIA as a participatory decision support tool. Consequently, EIA is a suitable and appropriate platform from which to build participatory decision making approaches for the southern African region. Environmental Impact Assessment is one window through which the public has the opportunity to engage a government in decision-making.
However, in southern Africa, there is insufficient public access to information and there are inadequate or weak mechanisms for public participation in decision-making. The Southern African Institute for Environmental Assessment (SAIEA), through support provided by the World Bank TFESSD (Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development) and Canadian CIDA, undertook 2-year project to develop a process to enhance participation in decision-making in the SADC region Africa. Calabash was not designed to actually do public participation, but rather was structured so that regulators, private sector, practitioners and civil society had the capacity, knowledge and tools to better undertake respective public participation programs on individual projects and programmes.
Governance in its simplest forms describes the relationship among institutions, processes and ideas. It is about the exercise of power, accountability and relationships in pursuit of an organization’s mission or a nation’s goals. In Africa, achievement of a country’s goals are severely challenged due to such issues as resource degradation, HIV/AIDS, water scarcity and conflict. EIA of projects and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of policies plans and programmes, are evolving rapidly to address wider sustainability objectives beyond biophysical concerns. The evolution of these planning tools is recognizing that the public has a significant role to play in the EIA or SEA process to assist a government to achieve its objectives, while at the same time advancing democratic reform and good governance practices. How a respective government engages civil society with respect to decision-making is one measure of how a government is reforming its governance and democratic reform processes. The recent Commission for Africa report concluded that governance is one of the key issues to be addressed by Africa if poverty reduction is to occur.
Many African countries have well written EIA statutes that require the involvement of the public or civil society in the project decisions that affect them. To date, the application and success of public involvement in EA has been most variable due to lack of capacity, information, knowledge and networks in many stakeholder groups. Regardless, EIA presents a very effective and practical tool for African governments to show to the international investment community and the African democratic review teams that democratic principles at the project/programme level are being applied. EIA is one big “window” through which democratic reform can be realized by more participation.
Furthermore, while democracy has been widely embraced by many African governments, regional bodies and international gatherings, it is difficult to assess the extent to which democratic practices have genuinely taken root One fact is clear – a county’s citizens rather than outsiders are best placed to undertake a comprehensive and critical identification of the challenges confronting their country on the path of democracy development and consolidation. And their participation in decision-making is key to democratic reform. Citizens, informed and active EIA can act as advocates for its use in decision-making processes affecting their lives to their political leaders who will then require it of regulatory bodies. Sustainable development can hardly be achieved without stakeholder involvement in the EIA process. EIA with public consultation is an essential part of the process and system needed to make sustainable development happen.
The Calabash project is one step of many to assist the SADC region to move forward on democratic reform by using EIA as a catalyst for participatory decision-making by providing appropriate tools, knowledge and networks to regulators, civil society, practitioners and industry of the SADC region.