Harnessing the power of business

PROFESSOR REGINA SCHEYVENS - Co-director, Pacific Research and Policy Centre

Companies operating enterprises in the Pacific are increasingly being called upon to play a role in community development. But how can the benefits to local people be maximised?

The private sector can have more resources than governments and non-governmental organisations in developing countries, but there is always an element of self-interest in corporate community development. For example, tourists are drawn to Fiji with expectations of friendly locals, so resorts need to look after the communities where they are based.

A Massey University research team led by Professor Regina Scheyvens and Associate Professor Glenn Banks investigated whether the community-development initiatives of mining and tourist corporations operating in the Pacific could bring about locally meaningful development.

The project, Harnessing the Power of Business: The contested involvement of corporations in community initiatives in the Pacific, examined two resorts in Fiji: one on Denarau Island and one on the Coral Coast. Fieldwork was also carried out on Lihir and Simberi islands, both in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where two different mining companies operate.

The other team members were lecturer Dr Sharon McLennan, PhD candidates Emma Hughes (Fiji) and Emma Richardson (PNG), and Professor Anthony Bebbington, from Clark University in the United States.


Conflicting agendas

“We found some companies that are working hard to do some positive things with local communities, but these were often based on their own agendas,” Professor Scheyvens says.

When companies are focused on maximising profits, they can take short-cuts and compromise the wellbeing of communities, she says. Donations to a school library or a mangrove-recovery project can look good to guests, for example, but the resort’s owners could also be paying local people low wages on insecure contracts.

In Fiji, most resorts are on land owned by Fijians, usually communally held, and leased to developers. But this is still land where the local people’s ancestors are buried, and they feel it should be a source of wellbeing for future generations. Mining in PNG, similarly, occurs on customary land that holds great importance to landowners.

“For companies, their profits come first and then they might do some nice add-on things,” Professor Scheyvens says. “It’s fair to say there are some really good general managers of resorts who are working quite hard to invest back in the communities surrounding them, but these communities have little say in how resources are used.

“Companies can feel oversubscribed by people constantly knocking on the door asking for things, but the reality is they are on land owned by the Pacific people and there are always going to be expectations that they will contribute to the wellbeing of those people.”

Ad hoc donations are nowhere near as valuable as developing programmes that are aligned to community planning and existing government policies.


Community alignment

The researchers recommended that resorts ask communities about their plans and talk with ministry of education officials to identify schools they can work with for the medium term, rather than, for example, donating unwanted linen to the local women’s association or passing on pens and pencils donated by guests to the nearest school.

“Ad hoc donations are nowhere near as valuable as developing programmes that are aligned to community planning and existing government policies,” she says. “We found some good cases of collaborations with government and NGOs, but these were isolated examples rather than common practice. Longer-term planning can work better for mines and resorts, too, as it means managers won’t feel as if they are being treated like a walking ATM, responding to a constant stream of small one-off requests.”


Bougainville legacy

Mining companies tend to invest a lot more money in corporate community development, not just because of the scale of operation but because they do not want a repeat of what happened in Bougainville, Professor Scheyvens says. The Bougainville Civil War, which began in 1988, was sparked by anger over mine profits leaving the island, environmental damage and an influx of migrants from other parts of PNG. The mine was closed by local protests.

Legislation and regulations have changed since the conflict to ensure that communities surrounding a mine get more of the benefits, but significant challenges remain, she says. “Companies can look good on paper in terms of the amounts of money they are investing in communities, but in practice there are still winners and losers and even the winners are only winning economically, not socially and culturally.”


Knowledge sharing

It was important to the research team to return and share their findings with the Fijian and Papua New Guinean communities they had spoken to during the fieldwork. “We wanted to make sure we were giving back knowledge gained and providing a chance for others to act on our findings,” Professor Scheyvens says. The findings were also circulated by the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association to members and a symposium was held at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. The tourism findings suggest collaboration is required at regional, national and local levels, from the planning stages through to application, monitoring and evaluation.

Mining industry representatives were invited to a symposium at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining to hear the findings of the PNG research. The researchers recommend that mining companies adopt more collaborative approaches to community development, including more active engagement between mining companies and local and central government.

Until the Massey project, there had been very limited research on corporate community development in the Pacific, Professor Scheyvens says.

“Such research is essential given the significant impact large corporations are having on the economies, environments and societies in question, and because there are unique circumstances in Pacific Island countries which might be shaping the nature of corporate-community relations.”

Project details


  • Marsden Fund
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Dates 2013 to 2016