A large-scale, high-tech mining operation in the middle of rural Tanzania was about the last thing I expected to see that dry, dusty day in 2004. After all, I had worked at several non-governmental organizations for over a decade in rural parts of Africa — on small-scale, low-technology initiatives and other poverty alleviation projects, mostly in the potable water sector — but I had never seen this type of massive investment in a rural area.
Just seeing Barrick’s Bulyanhulu mine turned many of my ingrained misperceptions about social and economic development upside down. Small-scale, drinking water projects were very much needed and personally rewarding to work on, but were also a source of frustration. I knew these types of aid projects couldn’t bring development fast enough, or on a scale that was required — and I knew that governments didn’t have the resources to make it happen either.
The mine site certainly wasn’t the answer to all the development needs of the local community, and the mining industry had challenges of its own when it came to community engagement — and still does — but on balance it had many attributes that were critical if local development was going to take place. The Bulyanhulu operation was gigantic in comparison to the small-scale ‘pilot’ projects I was used to and able to employ such a large number of people for whom other opportunities were very limited.
I have seen over and over again that a mine, operated responsibly, can be a real catalyst for local development.
Injecting money into a local economy through jobs or contracts creates an engine of economic growth that can quickly and efficiently turn into positive social development outcomes. Formal employment and contracts also create much-needed revenue for a tax-starved government. How the government spends it is another matter, but establishing a local tax-base on the back of investment is one of the only sustainable ways governments can ever stand on their own.
Given that Bulyanhulu was also going to be there for a generation or more, there was a clear business case for company investments in training, local business development and community infrastructure.
And so, when I was offered an opportunity to establish a corporate social responsibility department at Barrick, I readily accepted. Now, after almost a decade at the company, I have seen over and over again that a mine, operated responsibly, can be a real catalyst for local development.
And when governments also act responsibly, by making transparent, inclusive and long term policy and program decisions, they can ensure that the benefits of mining-related revenues multiply and extend well beyond immediate mine areas.
As someone who started his working life as a young idealist, volunteering with local communities in Africa, it’s been a fantastic journey - and to this day I continue to feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of real, positive change on the ground.