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  • Ildiko Almasi Simsic

The Story Behind My Book: What Is a Social Impact?

This blog post will be deeply personal where I will share what made me decide on writing and publishing my first book ‘What is a Social Impact?’. First let me start by saying thank you to those who already bought it, read it and provided feedback. I must say I was a little sceptical as to whether it would be interesting for the mainstream sustainability industry to listen to someone working in safeguards and performance management. I was worried that the big claims, shiny policies and corporate focused approaches will shadow the pragmatic voice of someone from the field. It was indeed during a site visit for an agribusiness project in Central Asia where I started thinking about our current narratives around impact assessment and management in more depth..

Let’s go back to the beginning. My career as a social development specialist started when I joined EBRD. I was lucky enough to have amazing mentors who were very knowledgeable subject matter experts but also remained human as we approached the social aspects of the projects we financed. My time with the Bank was incredible, partly because of the team and partly because of the projects. I loved learning about aspects of resettlement and livelihood restoration and applying a very pragmatic approach to risk mitigation and compensation. When my time at the Bank came to an end I was encouraged to get into consulting, ‘get my hands dirty’ on the ground and gather as much practical experience as I can. It was an emotional goodbye, but a hopeful one because -surely- everyone will want to work with someone with my background. I didn’t have to wait much to find out how marginalised and underappreciated social performance management was at the time. I applied for several sustainability related jobs where – I thought – my transferrable skills would be much appreciated and I would be a valuable member of the team.

I can almost hear some of you laughing out loud at this point. Mind you, I was young and naïve thinking that working for a development bank means that development jobs would be open for me, that working with impact assessments would open doors to impact jobs or that having a job in a sustainability department would lead to a job in ESG. How wrong was I? Very. Firstly, I could not fit the ESG agenda, as they were looking for credit risk analysts with an interest in climate change or environment who could review portfolios on a macro level. Development jobs and charities were looking for fundraising, advocacy and program management skills, while sustainability jobs were largely focusing on corporate level annual sustainability reporting. I was convinced that something is wrong with my CV, because all I was reading about in the news is how important human rights are and how the ‘S’ in ESG needs to be fleshed out. Furthermore, companies were eager to contribute to the Millennial Development Goals and later Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Everyone was talking about the positive impacts of their investments, portfolio, operations, and everyone wanted to address human rights impacts and bring social benefits.

It took me a long time to understand the broader sustainability market and my place in it as a social risk/performance/safeguards/development professional. I know I am not the only one in this industry who struggles with explaining to people what we do exactly. My own family had no idea what I do for years and they kept telling people that I work in a bank. We say sustainability and people think of ESG and LED lights in the corporate office. We say social development and people think of philanthropy or CSR initiatives. We say impact assessments and people think of the high-level indicators for program impact measurement, as opposed to the site specific risk assessments. By 2020, almost everyone -private or public sector – had something to do with the green agenda, decarbonization, sustainability, SDGs, looking after communities and bringing positive social impacts. As I looked around on my LinkedIn, all I saw was everyone speaking up on human rights, social impacts and green finance. Even people, who I know for a fact, lacked any sort of in-depth subject matter expertise. I was grateful that so many people cared about the agenda, but I didn’t understand how I fit in this renewed sustainability market with my niche contribution to site specific social impact management.

New kinds of jobs were advertised where companies were looking for social impact managers, human rights experts and supply chain management specialists. I followed the events, conferences, educational tools and trainings on my subject, but I didn’t recognise any of the speakers. I did wonder, how it is possible that I know so many people in the industry, yet no one who is an actual expert is invited to speak? I did see investment people, people from the treasury and even lawyers I knew speak on sustainability conferences, but not very often a colleague of mine. The unpleasant question emerged: Did they forget us? How can it be that other aspects of sustainability discuss our business without asking us? How can teams without a social specialist work on social impacts? Surely, it is a complex issue and there is merit in including data scientists, investment people, but why not a subject matter expert?

The more I thought about the issue, the more I realised that E&S risk/performance/safeguards professionals and the wider sustainability market do not speak the same language. E.g. board document for a windfarm states under development impact that the project will contribute to country level energy transition, positive environmental outcomes and alignment with international climate related agreements. Whereas under the E&S heading we write about the risks to birds and bats, frogs and groundwater, people losing land and livelihood and disintegration of community cohesion. How can it be that we have two such contradictory, yet true statements in the board document for the same project? Huh! The lightbulb went off and I started to understand that the scope and context are different. While I was looking at compliance with international standards for site specific social risks, the broader sustainability industry was talking about voluntary standards for proactive positive impact creation on a corporate level. I wrote a blog about sustainable assets vs. assets managed sustainably. Click here to read.

Once I understood the broader issue of not speaking the same language, I started to see these impact creating instruments as one interconnected market that address the different aspects of social impacts. I was also exposed to different clients on new projects who had a well-developed CSR program, detailed sustainability reporting, ESG ratings, yet they were unable to meet the project appraisal needs in terms of project level risk assessment, management systems and impact management. I started seeing that each of this tool is an instrument with its own set of purpose, scope, timing and context. I was looking for literature to confirm my suspicion about this interconnectedness, but there was none that would specifically examine the social context. So I started researching. I was fascinated by the history of each of these tools and how they evolved to accommodate the growing landscape of mandatory legal compliance around various E&S topics and respond to the increased interest in sustainability by a more informed set of stakeholders. I understood the overlaps, the similarities, the differences and the use cases for each.

During this research I was genuinely curious to discover how the arguments have been framed, the impact measurements defined and designed. My intention was to positively contribute to the industry through providing my perspective as a social performance practitioner. I was building on my knowledge and experience in social impact assessment to demonstrate how the impact creation cycle for each ‘social impact product’ -as I started to call them – could be enhanced. I talk about the difference between voluntary and mandatory efforts, site or micro vs. corporate or macro level impacts, risk mitigation or compliance vs. proactive impact creation, the metrics used to define the desirable outcomes and the ways the impacts are measured and demonstrated. I noted that there are direct impacts and indirect or attributable impacts. I realised that the market has changed and there is a need to refine our narrative of what we are doing in the name of sustainability. For months I was just writing and writing and I was deep into the research. I often wondered whether anyone would be interested in reading a book like this because discussing the ideas would require questioning the status quo that works so well for many virtue signalling and greenwashing entities. I decided to put my faith in people and trust that my ideas and suggestions will be welcomed with the same goodwill that I used when looking at initiatives. So here we are today. The book is living its own life online globally with feedback from people in the wider sustainability industry. I have been asked to speak on these issues, provide expert commentary on broader social topics. I have received positive feedback from my fellow social performance colleagues who finally feel seen and heard. Some might critique my ideas, but even then, they will stop and think of concepts and definitions. As far as I’m concerned, that is a win.

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