Environmental Impact Assessment

Press conferences
Overviews, questionnaires and polls
Open houses
Community meetings
Advisory committees
Public hearing
Appendix G

Consulting the Public


The EIA process typically involves consultations with members of the public-individuals, community and business leaders, elected officials, and non-governmental organizations, for example. These people are consulted because they are usually "stakeholders" in that, in a number of ways, they can have a "stake" in a project. For example, a project may provide opportunities for employment and sales of goods and services, it may displace them from their homes, or it may create noise and pollution which can affect their health.

Who is consulted during EIA activities, when, how and by whom will var. considerably from project to project, depending on project needs, but there are a number of reasons why this consultation is important:

  1. A project creates change. Irrespective of whether it is good or bad, change is usually upsetting. When people are informed about a project, their anxiety and concerns tend to be reduced and the project developer finds that his proposals are more readily accepted by people and government authorities.
  2. When people are informed, they are better able to appreciate the opportunities a project will have for them such as a job or a market for their goods and services.
  3. People in a project area have a wealth of knowledge and information about local conditions which can be valuable to those carrying out an EIA or more general project planning.
  4. Consultations can help avoid EIA omissions and mistakes. Local people can point out issues of concern to them, and what they value most in their environment, so these can be incorporated into an EIA
  5. Local people can easily have suggestions not readily apparent to outsiders on ways to avoid or minimise adverse impacts, to capture potential benefits, or to resettle displaced families in a humane manner.
  6. In democratic societies like Malawi, people expect to be consulted about activities which will affect their families, livelihoods, communities or historical, cultural or favourite recreational sites. Failure to consult them can result in problems for government and delays for project developers.

There are a number of distinct methods for consulting the public (Figure G.1) but it is essential to note, at the outset, that no one method Is usually sufficient by itself: An effective public consultation programme typically incorporates two, three or more methods which complement each other in ensuring adequate input to the EIA process.

  1. Press conferences, information notices & brochures/ fliers: Typical methods used to disseminate public information about a project. The sole objective of these methods is to inform the public so, strictly speaking, they are not genuine consultation. They are one-way communication "with" no attempt made to solicit people's views about the project. However, using information programmes can play the very useful purpose of letting people know what is going on and of stemming the proliferation of incomplete and inaccurate information via rumours and false reports. Public information methods are most useful if there are a series of information releases as a project moves through the project cycle, timed to coincide with major planning stages and decision points.
    Genuine public consultation goes beyond issuing information to using two-way communication methods which allow the public both to be informed and to express their views about a project. Open dialogue is considered to be the best way to share information and views, and to resolve issues, in a mutually satisfactory manner. The full range of consultation methods should be considered in the design of an appropriate public consultation programme. These methods include interviews, questionnaires, polls, open houses, community meetings, advisory committees and public hearings. Generally, more complex or sensitive situations require a more thorough consultation effort.
  1. Overviews, questionnaires and polls: Useful for soliciting information about an environmental and socio-economic setting for use in an EIA. They assist in gathering the views of the public about the project proposal, its desirability, and how it might best fit into the local community.
    1. Interviews: Generally conducted individually with a selected group of people, hopefully representative of the range of "stakeholders" in a project. They tend to be unstructured Conversations' guided by some general questions, in which the interviewer seeks key information about a project and responses to it.
    2. Questionnaires and polls:   The methods seek more specific information from a broader sample of people. They are not simple "instruments" to design and implement. The questions must be carefully crafted to avoid ambiguity and "leadings the respondent to a particular reply. Both "closed" and "open" questions can be asked, the first presenting a set range of replies for the respondent to choose from, and the second allowing the respondent to say anything. The two types are often used together to cover the same topic and provide the opportunity for unexpected answers. Questionnaires and polls mum be pre-tested before implementing them in the field to ensure that difficulties in wording and presentation are eliminated. They are always implemented with a sample of the population large and diverse enough to get an accurate picture of the entire population -- i.e. they are not a census. The design of questionnaires, polls and sampling strategies is a complex subject, particularly if statistically valid results are desired.
  2. Open houses: Informal forums where project sketches, maps and other information is displayed, hand-outs are available, and developer representatives are present to answer questions. Visitors come and go as they please. Open house events can be scheduled for different days, time periods and venues to be convenient to all stakeholders. It is often helpful to provide a questionnaire or comment sheet to assist visitors in providing feedback.

  4. Community meetings:  More structured gatherings where the developer, stakeholders and, perhaps, government representatives exchange information, views, concerns and suggestions. Open and genuine dialogue can be very beneficial for all concerned but it must be handled with great care to avoid degenerating into open conflict and polarised positions. In particular, any hint that the consultation is not genuine will undermine the effectiveness of a meeting. Moreover, all participants must be clearly aware of what their role is and the extent of their ability to influence the project being discussed.

  6. Advisory committees:  Normally comprised of a cross-section of affected people, groups and organisations. They are often employed in more complex project situations with a greater potential for conflict but can also be very effective in simpler situations. Their purpose is to provide a forum for the ongoing exchange of information and views between stakeholders and the proponent throughout the project cycle, and for the timely identification of problems and solutions as project planning and implementation unfolds. In establishing committee membership, a balance of interests should be maintained to promote broad thinking and creative solutions. Terms-of-reference should clearly state the committee's mandate and guide its work (ea. will recommendations be made and to whom, will the committee have any authority to make binding decisions?). Advisory committees require time, effort and money to be effective but can contribute substantially to achieving acceptable results for all concerned. A proactive developer may well consider this method from early in the project cycle to enhance the chances for smooth project planning, approval and implementation.

  8. Public hearing:  Formal meetings are usually held to consider the official of an EIA or of an entire project. They are structured proceedings, presided over by an administrative authority, in which testimony is given and examined, arguments for and against approval are heard, and a decision is made concerning approval or not. Depending on the jurisdiction, public groups may or may not have "standing'' in the proceedings - i.e. have the right to participate. Where standing does exist, some jurisdictions provide "intervenor funding" so that public groups can participate meaningfully when lack of funds is a significant constraint. Thus, public hearings provide an opportunity for stakeholders to challenge a proposal but little opportunity for the constructive exchange of information and ideas which other forms of public consultation are intended to achieve. To ensure that such hearings are efficient and effective, it is best if they are preceded by other methods of public consultation.


When considering the extent of public consultation needed for a project, one must consider the reasons why public consultation is important (Section G.1 above). Obviously, some consultation is desirable, if only to gather local information for project planning and to produce an acceptable EIA report. However, as discussed above, public consultation can take many forms and range from a limited to a very comprehensive and extended programme. Because project needs and local sensitivities will vary widely, what will be desirable for a particular project cannot be generically specified. Both Government and developers will need to be adaptive, responsive and willing to learn from experience before more prescriptive guidelines can be designed.

Most importantly though, public consultation should not be conceived as a "one-time" exercise but as a programme extending throughout the project cycle. In general, the programme should:

  1. be started as early as possible in the project cycle. This will ensure that information is given and received in a timely fashion to expedite the EIA and to dispel unfounded rumours and suspicions which may make project planning and implementation more difficult.

  3. be continued at some level throughout the project cycle. A sustained programme will contribute to better project planning, to enhanced public confidence in a project, and to timely notice should difficulties with public acceptance of a project begin to develop.

  5. have its major elements timed to coincide with significant planning and decision making activities in the project cycle. In terms of Malawi's EIA process, public consultation could be undertaken during:
    1. the preparation of EIA terms-of-reference
    2. the carrying out of an EIA 
    3. government review of an EIA report
    4. the preparation of environmental terms and conditions of approval

  6. Make substantial efforts to overcome evident constraints to public consultation in a developing country such as poverty, the dispersed nature of rural populations, illiteracy, cultural characteristics which might inhibit participation by some people (e.g. women, minority groups), and the dominance of interest groups. Information and consultation approaches need to be appropriate to both a project and its social setting.

  8. Ensure that it reaches all important stakeholders in a project area and both informs them about a project and gathers their views on its costs and benefits and how these can best be managed.
In terms of informing the public, the developer should at least place advertisements in national and project area newspapers, and perhaps on the radio, letting people know when a Project Brief, an EIA report has been submitted to the EAD; where they can review the document; and who they should contact if they want further information.

The objectives, methods and results of consulting the public during an EIA must be documented in the EIA report. Lists of individuals, groups and organizations which were consulted should be included as an appendix to the study report.


Foreword | Preface | Contents | Acknowlegdements  | Acronyms | Glossary
Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | References
Appendices | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | HAnnex I