S1E11 – Richard Robinson is a Senior Advisor for GardaWorld. His vast experience has seen him working in and across all sectors, corporate, non-profit and government. He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and spent the last two decades there, which included setting up one of the largest tin mines in the world in a remote region of North Kivu. So what have his experiences working for and contracting private security companies in DRC taught him about the role responsible security can play in settings renowned for corruption and conflict?
This podcast was originally published May 4, 2021
Hello, I’m Chris Galvin and I’m delighted to introduce the 12th episode in ICoCA’s podcast series, Future Security Trends Implications for Human Rights. Today’s episode is called A Future for Mining in the DRC The Role of Responsible Security. I’ll be in conversation with Richard Robinson, Senior Advisor with Gardaworld with a resume too long to run through. Richard is an American currently working for a Canadian company who spent much of his lifetime living and working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sir Richard, ICoCA is a multi-stakeholder organization that works with governments, private security companies and their clients, and civil society organizations to raise standards of private security companies working in complex environments. You have worn all these hats during a fascinating career, and I was wondering if you could just briefly walk us through your journey.
Thanks, Chris, and thanks for asking me to share. I most recently have spent the last 18 years working in the DRC and I’ve gone from working with an international NGO where we ended up partnering to manage corporate social responsibility with four multinational companies and partnering with USAID. I then worked for a large American mining company, Freeport-McMoRan, for several years, then I worked for USAID Conflict Minerals, and most recently I ran a Tin Mine in the northeast of the DRC, where we had to overcome a lot of security issues, a lot of confidence building and trust building with government, with the local community, with armed groups, and with corrupt authorities. And so, I was born in the DRC, I grew up in that country, actually in the colonial era, believe it or not. And I’ve done other things in my life. But I came back about 18 years ago full-time. The last phase of my life has been fascinating because even as a kid, we were aware of the important role mining played, but it was very obvious that it benefited the colonial rulers of the Congo. It benefited the elite who were mostly not African.
And the benefits really accrued back in the Metropole, the home country. And so, it’s been a bit of a dream of mine to participate from these different perspectives in trying to see how the Congo’s vast natural resources could be better managed and better used to benefit shareholders, investors, governments but most importantly, the people who live in the Congo, who really have a right to the benefits of that of those resources. So I’ve done other things. I’ve worked in manufacturing and making women’s shoes and computers. I’ve also worked in the area of employment of people with severe disabilities where I also did this brokering between the public and private sector to create opportunities with support for people to get out of mental hospitals and institutions and go right back to work where they could, where work is good therapy. And we found that people were less dependent on government taxes. And so that’s where I also cut my teeth on the idea of public-private partnerships as a solution where everyone gets to invest, but also they should get to benefit.
So, I want to focus a bit more on this brokering role that you’ve played, particularly in the mining sector in DRC. And I’d like to ask you, what have your experiences taught you about the challenges and opportunities bringing different stakeholders together around a kind of common cause?
I think even in an environment where like the DRC, the Congo where governance is weak and there’s instability in the institutions, the legal institutions, the security services, the courts, there’s real potential to share a vision about what, for instance, a responsible mining investment can do for the community, for the government who begin to get legitimate tax revenue instead of being tempted to pressure people for informal payments. And what I found was that if you could spend the time getting to know people and find people in the community, in the government, who can share that vision, not necessarily 100% or every day, but on a given day, if they buy into your vision, they can be counted on to make a positive decision to support implementing the law and to deal and confront peacefully something like artisanal miners who had invaded our mining concession and with whom we needed to negotiate a solution. So, I think long-term relationships, and I, fortunately, have those, but all of us can develop them, or we can hire people if we’re at an executive level, we need to hire people who are from the country or who have those qualities that will engender trust. And the other part of what I’ve found helpful is to create networks and informal ways of linking with people like that because they need to have a way to get you a message or to take your message and convey it elsewhere. And so, trust and informal structures are important and to get to know people and to stay in touch with them because their roles will change. They might move from government to the security services to the public sector or the private sector, and you want to be able to stay in touch with people that you’ve had a good relationship with. And it’s possible to do that, and it’s possible on a given day to get more of those people on your side so that you can get the support to do the right thing.
I would love to hear more. You mentioned about the interactions you had with the artisanal miners. I’m guessing this was at the Tin Mine project which you ran. I would love to hear more about that.
The investors, the company that I ended up working for, had bought the mining rights to a contested mining site that was previously occupied by artisanal miners who were financed by sketchy characters and whose exports and production often fueled armed groups and corruption. And so, when we arrived, there was kind of a peaceful coexistence that was not quite peaceful in that they were a kilometer and a half away doing their artisanal work and we were a kilometer and a half building a modern industrial underground mine. First of all, we were patient. First of all, we observed, we didn’t aggressively attack them, but we asserted to the government over and over again that we had legal rights and anything they did to help the artisanal miners understand that their time was limited and they needed to move on would have to be done in a way that didn’t create a human rights problem for us or a negative public relations problem. So, we did a lot of that. And then, a crisis kind of came about where the government chose to confront smuggling, and they found a significant amount of artisanal product that had to be seized. And this created an immediate crisis, but it led to negotiations and discussions. But we had the government on our side to say, or some people in government, to say we need to support this investment, it’s going to create a lot more tax revenue, a lot more formal employment than the artisanal mining that has fueled conflict and has done very little for the community around us.
So, peacefully with reminders at every meeting, we needed the help of the responsible security forces, mostly police, and a very limited number of the government army in the Congo, and we reminded them of their obligation to protect our reputation as well as take care of the issue. So, the last 1200 artisanal miners we negotiated with for them to leave peacefully, and they signed agreements and we helped them move to other sites. This was not always so successful in the negotiations with artisanal miners. But again, we were very remote as well. That was an advantage because it was hard for people to get to our site. So, it wasn’t like an urban situation where it’s even more complex. We also got the community on our side immediately by making sure they had benefits coming from the mine, from our corporate social responsibility investments. And so, we found that the artisanal miners really couldn’t go into the community and get their support because the community was already saying: “Wait a minute, this looks better to us. We’re getting schools and roads, and we’re getting a legitimate company that’s preparing to pay taxes and employ people”. However, it’s an ongoing process because spoilers, people who want to get back into the illegal informal circuits, are always looking for opportunities to create an incident. We’ve had staged incidents that were meant to promote an image where the police called upon to implement the law were supposedly perpetuating a human rights abuse, very much a montage and fake news.
But we had to patiently and clearly document that there was another side to that story. And in the context of the DRC, you want to work all of that out in the public domain, openly, transparently, because you don’t want to go to court because the legal system is also fraught with corruption. So, you want to avoid getting to a place where anyone takes you to court or you have to feel that you have to take anyone else to court. That’s how we succeeded in overcoming those issues. But, it’s an ongoing challenge and needs to be continuously. And, the other thing we did, was we helped find better places for them to work outside of our mining concession. We didn’t just negotiate their departure, but we said, we’re going to help you find a way to work better as artisanal miners. And for those who wanted to work for us, we offered them entry-level employment and hired them. So, others we said, we’ll help you get home, to where your home of origin, where you can get back to some other economic activity and provided them a small, this wasn’t a resettlement because that’s a tricky legal area, it was a compensation for helping them move essentially. So, I hope that helps a little bit of ideas of how we overcame those problems.
Yeah, I mean, how long did that whole process take?
It really lasted over really a three-year period.
And had you factored that in, into your kind of your business development strategy, as it were?
Well, actually, the company’s construction phase was ongoing, but we didn’t have all the money raised to build the mine. And so, there was actually a considerable amount of hope that we wouldn’t have a big crisis or incident in the middle of this construction and fundraising stage. And people were saying, “Richard, we really don’t want a confrontation at this point”. I had to say, “Wait a minute, for years now, we’ve been telling the government to help us out. They’re prepared to help us out and we can’t really control the timing. What we can influence, though, is their behavior”. And the fact that it was done peacefully, no force used at all really, in fact, helped us then with the final fundraising. Some of this is serendipity, but you’ve got to work the angles and make sure that you’re in sync with what the rest of the company is doing in terms of their fundraising or financing or their construction phase.
Now, you’ve used the term responsible mining investment. I’m just wondering if you what are the key components of that, would you say?
I think, maybe it’s more honest to say a more responsible kind of investment, that takes a longer view, and recognizes that there probably needs to be more corporate social responsibility investment than is minimally expected under the law or even by shareholders because you need to get the neighbors on your side. And so, a responsible investment is looking at what are the winning factors that will get people on our side, with whom we can feel like we have the famous social license to operate, and that it’s maintained, and that it’s a mutually beneficial social license. Responsibility also means that you’ve got to fall in line with what your shareholders and your host governments back home expect of your legal behavior and you have to follow the laws of the country you’re in and not to be tempted to take shortcuts. It’s tricky, and because some of your competition is very willing to pay bribes or to take those shortcuts, and this is where your shareholders have to have the long view that it may be harder in the initial period, but in the long term, you’ll have a mutually reinforcing relationship with the community and the host government.
We recently held a webinar on the issue of corruption, and I was interested to know what your advice might be. I mean, that’s obviously one, you’ve got to be in it for the long run. But, what other advice would you have to responsible companies who are operating in markets where corruption is rife and competitors might not be playing by the same rules?
I go back to that few important points about trust and relationships and informal networks. Because, if you know people, and you have a good relationship with people, you can talk about corruption, and you can explain to people from the government that we simply cannot pay that fee, we cannot pay irregular kinds of motivations or transactions. But in that relationship, you can then begin to see, well, maybe there are some quite transparent and legitimate things we can do to provide equipment or training that’s not seen as a quid pro quo but is seen as an investment in helping that government agency, or that government as a whole function better. But, I think we need to be creative, but respect and consult your lawyer to make sure you’re not doing anything that would be seen as carrying special favors or interests. But, I think if you can get to talking with people one-on-one, then you can explain to them why you can’t pay that bribe. It can work. I can tell you, it can work. But sometimes you have to be very patient. We had to wait 18 months to get approval to use our airstrip because someone wanted a motivation, and we had to make alternative arrangements during that time, which added costs, and added security risks because people had to go out of their way and take risks in unknown territory getting to the mine site.
Now, you have recently put on a different hat and you’ve jumped over to the private security sector. So, I’d like to know why did you do that and what role do you see private security actors playing as far as human rights are concerned?
I think, in frontier and weak governance zones, and sometimes even in our host countries, the issue of security is more and more important to business, to day-to-day business, and to investment decisions. And I’ve been interested in advising Gardaworld, because I think if they can be part of the responsible safety net around responsible investment, then they can influence the companies that hire them. They can also influence the communities who can see that there are ways to do security that may be different than a harsh government-linked role that respects people, but also draws boundaries and understands the humanity that’s across the fence or the humanity that’s trying to apply for a job or people who are desperately hungry and are sometimes invading your concession to get access to your resources. It seemed to me that increasingly the ability of responsible investors from anywhere else in the world to invest in risky parts of Africa hinges on how they manage security. And so, I’m interested in helping Gardaworld explore that, and it’s been very interesting and rewarding to this point. I can say that I think in a place like the DRC, human rights, and fair and legal treatment, the kind of standards that are in the ICoCA, standards are going to become more and more important over time because it’ll be a way for communities and governments to differentiate between good employers and bad employers. And the good employers will turn to private security, who have an understanding of this and prefer to work with them rather than the competition. It’s not easy, it requires the same patience and long view because sometimes your competition is not paying people as well. Quite often that’s the case. They’re taking shortcuts. They’re not investing in the relationships. So, I think there’s something to be said for patience and the ability, the financial ability to be patient, which requires an investor angle. The other thing is to, I think for private security actors, to be more open to partnerships, to working with local service providers, local private security companies, and to perhaps work with the government in new ways. The DRC has recently strengthened its formal commitment to human rights. They may not understand how to do that. And so that becomes an opportunity to say to the government of the Congo and other places, “We’re a private security provider, we’re an observer NGO, with ICoCA, or we’re a major investor that’s also an observer with ICoCA, and we would like to know how to help the Congolese government understand human rights”. Because at the end of the day, if they can do that, they will encourage better investors that will be willing to invest more responsibly.
I just want to pick up on one point there, and this is something that we hear again and again from our members. They are competing in a marketplace, and their competitors are coming in with much lower bids. And the result of that, when those bids are chosen by clients is that ultimately the staff are very poorly paid, the conditions of work are very poor, they’re not trained, they’re not properly vetted. But, it’s the clients, ultimately, who are making the decision based on cost alone. And so, what can be done to kind of raise awareness within the client community that there are impacts that this has, and there are very clear human rights impacts?
Well, I think we need to build bridges among competing private security companies to find those that understand this issue, and whether it’s 1 or 2 or maybe more, to begin to build a bridge of a common platform that says we’re just not going to lowball our bids to take out of our overhead so that we can submit very low bids to pay people less. I think it may take us a little bit of new behavior to trust, and to develop more of a responsible, perhaps a chapter of ICoCA in a country that links with some of our NGOs and big company investors to say to give us support around educating clients that there’s a cost to them when they continue to only look at low balling, low figures on pay and to as a collective group to share information about illegal or questionable employment practices that would make us look better. So, I think it requires some common effort, and I don’t know if ICoCA helps members in a country connect with each other, but that could be something that could help, so that their common statements. And in some countries there’s not even an association for private security companies. So, we might want to help create that, and set a standard for better behavior that clients can then begin to recognize. I’m better off paying a little bit more, but I’m going to get a better, more reliable service.
That’s a great suggestion. And you’ve obviously spent a lifetime building relationships. And I’m just wondering, how else do you think ICoCA should be engaging with stakeholders to raise standards across the sector?
Well, I think it’s interesting to see that ICoCA has a very open policy on local NGOs, local civil society organizations. And, I think that could be strengthened with, perhaps more information and capacity building. And I think I know from talking to you and your colleagues that you’ve been doing some of that in the DRC to create some joint projects and to look at funding that would train. One of the challenges for our clients, for the companies that hire private security, is that they find it hard to know how to trust civil society. How can they trust an NGO or a CSO? And I think if the CSOs associated with ICoCA, or those that are a step above that really understand that it’s not just about beating people up, criticizing companies, but what are the needs they have to have their rights respected as well as expecting them to respect the rights of neighbors and employer employees and so on. The other challenge, I think, would be for ICoCA to work at a government level. I think the reality is there’s more private security out there, of various kinds in emerging markets than there is formal company security. In positioning ICoCA as a resource, it could help host governments understand the practical benefits of behaving in a more responsible way, more respectful way that respects all kinds of legal obligations but treats people the way you would want to be treated yourself.
Well, we are reliant as ever on our members and the knowledge, wisdom, and, experience that they bring to the table in helping us raise standards across the industry. And we’re very pleased to be working with you on these issues and look forward to raising standards in the future. But for today, Richard, thanks so much.
The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).