Social impact assessments - Michael Briguglio

Social impact assessments - Michael Briguglio

Do residents benefit from massive development projects which commercialise public land? Is Malta’s budgetary surplus impacting different social groups in an equitable manner? Is social cohesion given the importance it deserves in Malta’s policy process? These are some questions which merit evidence-based research through social impact assessments (SIAs).

In previous articles in this newspaper I referred to the need to assess the social impacts of development projects. In view of Malta’s current economic model, I feel that the need for such evidence is needed now more than ever in different policy areas.

First things first. Some readers may not be conversant with this term. A social impact assessment reviews the social effects of development and social change, both intended and not.

The International Association for Impact Assessment defines an SIA as the process of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions and any social change processes invoked by those interventions.

Such changes may range from natural disasters to population growth and from policy interventions to singular development projects. Consequently, SIAs investigate the effects on people’s everyday lives in terms of culture, politics, community, health, well-being, aspirations, needs, rights and responsibilities, to name a few.  They provide data for policymaking, which is based on evidence.

Various methods, both quantitative and qualitative could be used within social impact assessments. The former refers to generalisable data especially through numbers, while the latter produce in-depth data on matters.

As things stand, there are no national guidelines on the need for social impact assessments in Malta

Research methods in SIAs may therefore include surveys of concerned populations who are asked questions on their perceptions of the change in question. Ethnographic methods may involve a deeper look into everyday practices of people, while elite interviews may verify the advice, concerns and interpretations of persons who are experts or who have experience in the respective field under analysis.

Methods may also involve the analysis of discourse on the subject in question, for example by looking at what is being pronounced in the public sphere, whether by the public, civil society, political actors, the media and the like.

SIAs should thus involve the participation of different stakeholders, ideally through mixed research methods.

Rather than being one-off exercises, SIAs should be continuous, ideally resulting in policies which are better suitable to the issue in question. Recommendations and mitigation measures could therefore be in place, and these would be based on social-scientific evidence.

It is also important that SIAs are peer-reviewed. This means that if a study is being carried out by a team of social scientists, this should be scrutinised by other independent social scientists. This could help identify shortcomings, conflicts and possible improvements to the same SIA.

As things stand, there are no national guidelines on the need for SIAs in Malta. The conducting of such studies on development projects is at the discretion of the Planning Authority.

When exceptionally carried out, they are one-off studies on major development projects. This effectively means that smaller-scale development projects with bigger cumulative impacts are not subjected to SIAs.

If one looks at other policy interventions, SIAs are practically absent. Just to name a few: the importation of thousands of workers, the selling of passports, the dynamics of agriculture, the cost of living, urbanisation, the commercialisation of public land.

Indeed, there are so many areas where SIAs could be introduced in Malta: government consultation on new legislation, proposals in the national budget, the adoption of EU directives, parliamentary committees and local councils are just some areas. For example, the latter could carry out SIAs to establish community profiles, cultural commonalities and differences, social needs, demographics, impacts of development and so forth.

The University of Malta and other educational institutions are currently producing graduates in different social sciences who are equipped to carry out SIAs and who are sensible to the need for evidence-based policymaking. Let us not waste such important resources. Let us have political consensus to mainstream social impact assessments.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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