Assessing Adverse Impacts of Development Projects During the Pandemic

Mobile phones and other devices can be an important part of assessing a project’s impact during the pandemic. Photo: ADB
Mobile phones and other devices can be an important part of assessing a project’s impact during the pandemic. Photo: ADB

By Cecilia De Castro

Remote due diligence can help development professionals assess potential adverse impacts of projects despite travel restrictions.

When undertaking a development project or program, it is vital to minimize any adverse impacts it might have on people and the environment. The assessment of these impacts, called an environmental due diligence, often involves site visits to conduct interviews and first hand analysis. This helps to understand potential environmental impact, assess mitigation measures, and make sure the project complies with laws and regulations, industry practices and safeguard policies.

The travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 have made it very challenging to conduct these crucial site visits. One solution is to conduct this assessment remotely, using the internet and commonly available tools, such as teleconferencing and videoconferencing platforms, geo-tagging and on-line mapping applications, and biodiversity and climate risk assessment tools.

During a recently concluded test case, we found the following key factors should be considered for the successful completion of a fully remote environmental due diligence.

Planning and preparation. The planning and preparation of a full remote environmental due diligence requires detailed reviews of the project, location, layouts, plans and background documents. Also needed is preparation of focused questions and discussion points, and development of a detailed remote site visit plan including itemizing the sections of operating facilities or facilities under construction that must be covered during the site tour.

When undertaking a development project or program, it is vital to minimize any adverse impacts it might have on people and the environment.

A common platform for the client and external stakeholders. Like an on-site due diligence, a remote environmental due diligence requires discussions with the client and external stakeholders such as representatives from the local regulatory agencies. It is very important to identify and use a teleconferencing and videoconferencing platform common to all participants. It is equally as important to identify the limitations of such platforms well in advance. Interruptions in the middle of discussions can reduce a productive interaction into a series of follow-up emails and phone calls.

The value of client cooperation. The client's appreciation of the benefits of a remote due diligence, cooperation and high comfort level in showing the project site and ongoing activities including those with potential environmental, health and safety issues can make or break a fully remote environmental due diligence. Probing questions and discussion of health and safety issues during videocalls and teleconferencing are matters that need to be managed with utmost care. The safeguards teams must clearly communicate to the client the proposed methodology, the activities to be done, and discussion points. It is also up to the team to make the client feel comfortable that the exercise is not just a fault-finding expedition but about identifying points for improvement.

The importance of ground truthing. Opportunities for confirming information and collecting and inspecting documentation are helpful in verifying the consistency and accuracy of information. An in-country team member, for instance, who may not be an environmental specialist, but is permitted to travel to the site, can be fielded for ground truthing with guidance from the environment team.

Team expertise. From methodology development to actual implementation, remote environmental due diligence can benefit from the inputs of team members who have strong track records in conducting environmental due diligence and audits in a sector or location. It is also an advantage for the safeguards team to be similarly skilled in managing discussions involving technical and probing questions even with limited face-to-face client interaction.

It is highly likely that travel restrictions due to the pandemic will be in place for some time. This may change the way development organizations conduct due diligence and supervision of safeguards. Is remote due diligence the way forward? It has potential. However, a strong case for using this approach should be built around the nature of the client's business operations, the project specific circumstances, and the client's capacity and track record.

Success also requires the safeguards team to show strong resolve that even when done remotely, safeguards policies and principles are not diminished, and the environment and people are protected from a project’s potential adverse impacts.