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  • Ildiko Almasi Simsic

Missing social impacts from the EU EIA Directive

The challenges of capturing social impacts when applying national EIA legislation and the EU EIA Directive


Recently I got a few new projects that are all within the EU. While I’m happy to work in my home territory, there are certainly challenges to capture the social impacts of projects because of the lack of regulatory frameworks. The EU EIA Directive first came into force in 1985 and has been amended a couple of times since then with the latest amendment in 2014. Member States were required to ratify the minimum requirements of the Directive by 2017 with the first implementation reports due in 2023. The implementation of the Directive is rather straightforward. Annex I and II define the list of sectors, projects, activities that are subject to an EIA in line with the Directive’s standards. The assessment typically includes impacts on population and human health, biodiversity, land, soil, water, air climate, landscape, material assets and cultural heritage.


Why do I think that social impacts are missing?

It might be the first thing listed under topics to cover, but truth to be told I have not seen an EIA that was prepared by a group of experts including a social specialist. It seems that social specialists are mainly engaged in international ESIAs where there is a more refined requirement for the inclusion of social impact assessment.


The other issue is the lack of direction on the types of impacts on population and human health. The international best practice on social impact assessment would require a socio-economic baseline capturing conditions in the affected areas and communities defined under the ‘area of influence’. The collected data on the populations within the area of influence include administrative and governance structures, economics and employment (types of livelihoods, poverty, inequality), community health and safety, education, social capital and many more. The area of influence often includes the areas around associated facilities, transportation routes. These are completely missing from the assessment under the EU EIA Directive.


The issue of land is an interesting one, because there is a mention in the Directive, but it is not from the perspective of expropriation, physical and/or economic displacement. In international best practice and IFI standards the assessment of land and livelihood impacts is a requirement that is followed by the necessary mitigation measures proposed. I have published some legislation from countries that govern expropriation, compensation for land, compensation for agricultural crops, trees etc. The gaps between national legislation and international standards include recognition of informal land users/owners, compensation prior to impact at replacement value, consultation, provision of in-kind compensation to name a few. In the EIA Directive context, these impacts are treated as something completely separate from the EIA under national legislation and often ‘free market transaction’. While I don’t dispute that there are people willing to sell their land for a good price if a project comes along, the gaps for other informal users and people within the area of influence remain. There is usually little discussion on access to natural resources or ecosystem services in these EIAs.


The other main issue I have is related to stakeholder engagement and grievance management. While the Directive provides for consultation and information disclosure, these requirements are not well defined and usually result in two public hearing events. International best practice provides for a more robust but still pragmatic approach to have a continuous dialogue with affected and interested stakeholders. The stakeholder engagement plan is one of the main tools to establish rapport with communities and obtain the social license to operate.


The management of complaints under the EIA Directive is up to the judicial systems as opposed to the informal, accessible grievance mechanism that we require sponsors to set up under international standards. The mechanism serves the purpose to record any questions, complaints, issues or feedback from the communities and provide remedies in a swift and efficient way. I have seen grievance mechanisms solve minor problems and thus restoring the faith of the community in developers. I know that legal ways to raise concerns are widely available in the EU, there is a still an associated cost. Let’s say the complaint is about the truck running over crops or being too noisy. Do we really want people to sue developers instead of just making a phone call to start a discussion on how to resolve this issue? We tend to forget that there is still poverty and vulnerable groups within the EU that might not have access to any formal avenues to raise complaints.


Let me finish on a positive note about cultural heritage. It is included in the Directive and my experience is that local legislation is stringent, often on par with international standards. Why do I say often? Because intangible cultural heritage is a tricky subject that is best assessed by a qualified social scientist.


Why does this matter?

The short answer for my project is that it does not. We are coming in as an IFI and we will require the assessment of social impacts as per our policies. The other longer and perhaps lease comforting answer is that we provide inferior compensation for impacts across the world without understanding the complex social context we operate in. The legislation within the EU and in countries might capture several elements of a good social management system, nevertheless, gaps remain that should be addressed on the project level.


Is it time for the EU ESIA Directive to capture social impacts in line with international best practice? Can the focus on supply chains and human rights create the momentum for social impact assessment?

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