Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Listening, Communicating and Diplomacy - The Importance of Geologists Developing Soft Skills for Effective Development

Last week I was at a very interesting seminar at King’s College London, given by Dr Katie Oven of Durham University. She spoke about her PhD work, building resilience to geophysical hazards in rural areas, particularly looking at landslide prone areas in Nepal.

One of the key issues to come out of the seminar was the balance between community participation and expert knowledge. When should discussions with communities about, for example, where to place a road stop and the expert judgement of engineering geologists begin? It seems this is a very difficult but important balance. In the case outlined above, the Engineering Geologist has an important understanding of many of the challenges in determining a road route. From the rock mass quality, to groundwater and drainage questions, to issues of slope stability – their knowledge and study when correctly applied can help increase the quality, effectiveness and sustainability of the project.

In the same manner, however, local communities must also be consulted and heavily involved at all stages of the project. They have understanding of local issues, cultural practices, high risk areas and the quality of local materials that is very useful to the geological and engineering teams. An expert working closely with the community can learn a lot, and also impart knowledge and understanding that will help the community.
Whilst working on water projects I came across many similar issues. Local water engineers would want to use divining methods to assess for the potential of water, whilst my western mind-set would find this very difficult to accept. We would also have to work closely with the wider community in order to understand their problems with water, and encourage a sense of community-led demand for clean water. Without this approach water projects were failing as the community felt no sense of ownership or responsibility for them. Somebody had come and talked to a couple of people (normally to a couple of the men – who don’t normally collect the water anyway!) and then put a well in. They had then left with no training or support for the community in how to manage and maintain their water source.

It seems to me that these two examples highlight that geologists wishing to work on successful, effective and sustainable development projects need to work on a number of ‘soft’ key skills as well their more well-practiced ‘hard’ skills (such as hammering rock, measuring dip and strikes and mapping landslides)!
LISTENING: It is essential that geologists learn to listen to what communities are telling them – ensuring that they get the opportunity to explain their needs, thoughts and opinions about projects. Geologists should try and listen to as wide variety of people as possible, especially remembering particularly vulnerable groups (such as women, children, the elderly and disabled). This listening exercise should be (i) genuine, not just a token, ticked that box thing; (ii) active – researching culture, customs and aspects of language to understand more fully what you are being told and what you see.
COMMUNICATION: Geologists need to learn to communicate clearly – explaining their ideas simply but effectively. Their communication needs to respond to what they have heard from the community and local authorities, it needs to encourage and strengthen the community’s sense of involvement and ownership of the project.
CREATIVITY & DIPLOMACY: In terms of the balance between involvement and expert knowledge, I believe those involved in projects where these can conflict need to work to present feasible options to communities and get their input on where to proceed. There is a strong need for creativity in presenting ideas in order to win communities over, whilst also having the humility and listening skills to genuinely accept that the communities knowledge can help develop and improve a project.
It would be very interesting to hear of any other thoughts about certain ‘soft skills’ that geologists require for working on development projects? Also I’d very much recommend a paper written by Mike Petterson et al (2008), Communicating Geoscience to Indigineous People: Examples from the Solomon Islands – which is available in the Geological Society (London) Special Publication on Communicating Environmental Geoscience (Ed. Liverman, Pereira and Marker). This paper looks at best practice for communicating geoscience knowledge relating from gold mining to volcanic hazards, and draws out many helpful points.