Introduction

This article is based on a study of how oil and gas corporation officials and community members understand and engage each other in relation to the concept and practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR).1Idemudia, U. and U. E. Ite. “Corporate–community relations in Nigeria’s oil industry: challenges and imperatives.” Corporate Social Responsibility and environmental management, 13 no. 4 (2006): 194-206.; Akpan, W. “Between responsibility and rhetoric: some consequences of CSR practice in Nigeria’s oil province.” Development Southern Africa, 23 no. 2 (2006): 223-240.; Idemudia, U. (2014). Corporate-community engagement strategies in the Niger Delta: Some critical reflections’. The Extractive Industries and Society,1(2), 154-162. It will focus on some of the lessons and challenges from the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. As part of the fieldwork for the study, oil and gas corporation staff and oil community members in the Niger Delta region and Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, were interviewed.

Methodological lessons in the field: Data collection sensitivity

My observation is that staff members of oil and gas corporations and influential members of host communities to oil and gas corporations in Nigeria should be considered and treated as vulnerable populations during fieldwork. This is because they are influenced by fear/suspicion, or the risk of losing their jobs and positions when they participate in research. This places limits on the access, quality, and reliability of information that researchers can collect from such sources. This population may not be perceived as “high risk” in most developed countries that support and practice freedom of speech. However, in Nigeria, in spite of assurances, respondents may exercise self-censorship out of the fear of possible repercussions. It is important that researchers working on sensitive issues such as oil, should take this into consideration when designing or developing their research and data collection tools. For example, during fieldwork in the Niger Delta region, staff of oil and gas corporations and critical community leaders expressed their preference for unrecorded informal interviews.2These interviews were conducted in Lagos, Akwa Ibom and Rivers states in the summer 2017 and summer 2019. Some even preferred “a discussion,” with no notetaking, and others that allowed notetaking insisted on inspecting the notes to ensure that certain information could not be traced back to them.

Upon further investigation, I discovered that some of these individuals were driven by fear. A youth leader in Rivers State explained that he was aware of cases where individuals identified as sources of information viewed as being critical of some oil company CSR practices had ended up losing their benefits, contracts, and even jobs. He was concerned that he could lose such opportunities with corporations if they realized that he had been critical of their CSR practices or programs. He was also apprehensive that his community chiefs might replace him as the corporation’s youth liaison representative if they found out.

Skepticism in the field

Members of Niger Delta oil producing communities are also skeptical of the motives and agenda of researchers. Many of them believe that while many researchers have studied their problems with oil and gas corporations for over 20 years, no long-term changes have resulted from these endeavors. Such skepticism impacts community members’ attitudes towards any new study. These range from being opportunistic, antagonistic, indifferent, or distrustful towards researchers. Researchers have to work hard and over some time to build trust and use existing networks to reach prospective research respondents. Building trust with communities includes being transparent about the deliverables and providing specifics on the immediate outputs from research projects. In addition, researchers should work on setting up follow-up mechanisms to update community members about the progress of the study after the data has been collected and how they can benefit from the research findings.

Bureaucratic Challenges in the field: “Oga”3Oga means Boss in a local creolized form of Pidgin English widely spoken in Nigeria. culture as a constraint to accessing information

During the investigation, recruited corporate staff respondents were uncomfortable with sharing their opinion about the impact of their corporation’s activities on communities or their branch offices and preferred that such information be acquired from their bosses. A typical question asked was: “what is your company doing in X community and how do you think this work impacts community members?” Examples of responses from oil company officials in Akwa Ibom and Rivers states included: “have you talked to headquarters?” if not, then “talk to (Nigeria)) headquarters and whatever Oga tells you is what it is.”4These interviews were conducted in summer 2017 and summer 2019. Even when offered confidentiality, respondents were more concerned about losing their jobs or access to patronage. This was illuminating as some respondents were wary of being identified as or considered to be whistleblowers and how this might impact their socio-economic status and economic role as breadwinners.

Gaining access to networks in the field

Experience gained during fieldwork revealed that politicians, not civil servants, have better access to officials of oil and gas corporations. Following interviews with corporate staff at branch offices, I prepared to visit the corporate headquarters of some oil companies for interviews with the corporate social responsibility or public relations managers. Part of the preparation for such visits included obtaining an introductory letter from the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR). The DPR is the technical division of the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources in Nigeria. It is tasked with monitoring the oil industry, issuing licenses, and ensuring the compliance of oil and gas corporations with relevant laws and standards. However, after a week-long wait for this letter, I was informed by officials of the DPR regional office that they could not guarantee that the oil corporations would honor their letter, claiming that corporations only respond to requests directly from the Minister of Petroleum or other top-level politicians within the government. Moreover, the introductory letter was only valid within the Niger Delta and could be ignored by the DPR office in Lagos because it was outside the Niger Delta region.

Accessing managers of oil and gas corporations was also problematic. It was quite challenging to secure a meeting with corporate social responsibility or public relations managers. For example, upon arrival at a head office of an oil company in Lagos with letters from DPR and my academic institution, I was required to wait for the manager to request approval for interviews or meetings. The process was frustrating after days of waiting without success. It was not until I contacted the Minister of Petroleum’s office about the study that an official facilitated my immediate access to the corporate manager for public relations in an oil and gas company for the interview.

Conclusion

The Niger Delta is a unique environment and conducting fieldwork-based research in this space requires patience. Not only is it important to be aware of the existing bureaucratic structures, we also had to understand the challenge of building trust and networks with civil society and community groups that help researchers access the field. Snowball sampling and referrals were found to be the best recruitment methods for research in the Niger Delta region. This is because they facilitate recruiting vulnerable populations, including specific target groups. Additionally, they enable existing research respondents to help with recruiting future respondents.  Notwithstanding, researchers have to learn to acknowledge that most community members and corporate oil and gas company staff consider interviews a “high risk” endeavor and may request assurances of compensation for any loss incurred by their responses.

Maintaining ethical integrity in the field requires that researchers be explicit about their limitations by not promising what they cannot control or provide, such as compensation to respondents for possible losses incurred during research. They should also emphasize to participants that they can withdraw from the study at any point and can review their data or responses prior to data analysis.

Additionally, to ensure data validity and credibility, researchers should utilize data triangulation and various data collection methods, such as secondary research, interviews, surveys, and observation in their studies.

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