9 What a Fine Mess! Moving Beyond Simple Puzzle-solving for Sustainable Development – The Triple Bottom Line

Chapter 9

What a Fine Mess!
Moving Beyond Simple
Puzzle-solving for Sustainable

Rupesh Shah


In 1991, the development director of a small UK-based non-governmental organization (NGo) called Living Earth approached Shell international to discuss concerns over the company's operations in South America. Living Earth worked on environmental education initiatives, primarily in the UK. After some time together, the company set up a relationship with the director of Living Earth, using him as a sounding board and consultant to help manage environmental and community issues. This advisory relationship was maintained over Shell's encounters in Brent Spar in the North Sea and in ogoniland in Nigeria during 1995, when the company was rocked by outrage and criticism of its handling of the environmental and social implications of its operations.

Eventually, the two parties agreed to collaborate on a community development initiative in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. one of the reasons Shell began to engage with NGos was because of the high esteem in which society


Life expectancy across Africa is, on average, 45.89 years. In Senegal, where 3 in every 10 children die before their 5th birthday, it is 37 years. In Europe or North America, average life expectancy is just over 75.

Source: The Guardian (2002)

held them (Shah, 2000). However, the specific context in Nigeria also led Shell to recognize the importance of working with NGos as a conduit in their bond with local communities. Meanwhile, they also felt that their ‘licence to operate’ had been lost in the region due to an unprecedented level of community disturbance in their oil-producing regions.

In 1999 i was able to engage with Living Earth and Shell as part of my phD research. My intention was to work with both organizations to bring about some reflection on their partnership in the Niger Delta (and to do the fieldwork required for my phD). in this chapter i explore the network of relationships between Shell, Living Earth, the communities of the Delta and myself. i relate how these interactions seem, initially, to have had highly managerial and control-oriented dimensions. Such a technocratic approach seems quite often to be the starting point for attempts at addressing the problems of ecologically and economically unsustainable and socially unjust human development. i go on to suggest that by themselves such technocratic responses are insufficient for creating a more people-centred and ecologically grounded form of development.

First steps

In its annual report, Shell Nigeria highlighted its relationship with Living Earth as an opportunity for ‘partnering for development’ (SPDC, 1997, p17). At the outset, i read this and other documentation that was available and had some initial conversations with individuals from the two organizations. With some naivety i thought that the relationship had been a wonderful example of collaboration between NGos and business, aimed at fostering change and opening the space for more sustainable forms of development.

At the time, other research was beginning to explore the relationships between NGOs and business (Murphy and Bendell, 1997; Long and Arnold, 1995), and i was excited by the chance to document the learning on such a talismanic issue as Shell's community relations in the Niger Delta.

over the course of a year i spent time with both organizations in the UK and Nigeria and developed a ‘learning history’ (Roth and Kleiner, 1995; 1998; Bradbury and Lichtenstein, 2000) of their relationship. Through the engagement with both organizations and the communities in the Delta, I


There are approximately 14 million species on the planet, one of which consumes 40 per cent of ‘potential net primary productivity’ (essentially photosynthetic activity).

Source: Vitousek and Ehrlich (1986)


Between 100 and 150 million people are estimated to be moving from rural provinces of China into Guangdon province, a region that now reportedly makes one in three of all shoes sold in the world. This is the greatest migration in human history, in part resulting from consumer demand for cheap manufactured products.

Source: UK Radio 4, July 20021

became aware of the difference between the formal external presentation of the partnership and the far more messy realities of the relationship between the company, NGOs and the community in Niger Delta.

Shell's responses to its problems in the Delta were manifold and ongoing. At one level, for example, they initially increased spending on community development activities from approximately US$10 million to US$35 million between 1992 and 1996. Later on the response included the recruitment by Shell of community development experts. Shell Nigeria brought in a number of development professionals from the World Bank and other aid agencies with a remit to help with easing the tensions between the company and communities in the area where the company operated. As Shell attempted to respond to the situation it re-labelled ‘community engagement’ initiatives within the Delta as ‘Shell Partners for Development in the Community’ as a way of indicating a shift from ‘community assistance’ to ‘community development’.

Despite such activity, the problems of community disturbance and unrest continued to threaten Shell's ability to operate in one of its most profitable regions. At present, Shell, as well as other Western oil companies operating in the region, continues to put more money into community development activities in order to maintain its ‘licence to operate’. Shell and the other oil companies have been shifting the emphasis of their operations from inland oil extraction towards offshore extraction, one implication being the reduced need to interact with communities. However, Shell is still confronted by numerous problems of separation from the communities, alongside whom it operates in the Delta. Recent reports have emerged from the Delta that community disturbance has caused various oil companies to shut down operations in the region and has resulted in a loss of 29 per cent of output.2

Straight lines and emerging messes

It seems to me that Shell – an organization with considerable ‘engineering’ success and expertise – was first minded to respond to the situation in the Delta by considering the simple technical issues that might have been causing the


1.2 billion people currently lack clean drinking water. Daily water consumption in Tanzania costs 5.7 per cent of the daily wage; in the US the cost is 0.006 per cent.

US$170 billion would be required to provide clean and healthy sewerage systems for all individuals worldwide. US$350 billion is spent on farm subsidies, primarily in the US, Europe and Japan.

Source: The Guardian (2002)

situation. For example, one angle the company took was to respond to what it perceived as the needs of the ‘community’ by increasing the quantity of community investment. Thus, from a level of approximately US$0.3 million in 1989, Shell's community spending in the Delta rose to US$42.6 million in 1998. From an initial focus upon agricultural extension-type development activities, the new money was channelled into a variety of infrastructure projects, such as the building of schools, hospitals and roads.

This extra money was being spent with the same attitude and culture that had marked the company's engagement with the communities to date. The company's perception of ‘community’ was understood through a technical and separatist cultural frame that had, arguably, contributed to the conditions for conflict. So, for example, those areas of the Delta in which Shell maintained operations were defined as ‘oil-producing communities’; and it was towards these areas that Shell focused virtually all of its initial increased spending. This categorization seems to reveal a set of assumptions that ‘community’ can be understood as corresponding to discrete pockets of people on plots of land. This can be contrasted to appreciating and working from a more fluid, complex, emergent and ‘power-aware’ understanding of community. The highly technical nature of the interpretation and initial response to the ‘community’ is remarkably similar to the way in which oil exploration and extraction areas are separated into discrete ‘concessions’, without attention to bio-regions or local ecological processes.

I can also see a cultural pattern of a technical and mechanistic attitude in the use of isolated and outside advisers and consultants, such as the community relations department in Shell Nigeria. By maintaining a focus upon changing its relationship with the communities through the work of the community relations department within Shell Nigeria, the majority of the organization (including operational staff) remained excluded from co-constructing the change process. Meanwhile, the use of outside ‘experts’, such as Living Earth and me, enabled the company to maintain an attempt to separate itself from the activities of the communities.

The overriding flavour of the company's response that I tasted was of a technical approach to managing the situation. The response pattern matched the organization's skill in solving the outward manifestation of problems using its current frames of reference. Moreover, much of Shell's subsequent response to the agenda of sustainability has also been in line with a technical, problem-solving mind-set. Yet, there are suggestions that the culture was shifting, becoming more open to another, less reductionist, mind-set. For example, by attempting to shift the foci towards ‘partnership with the communities’, there was some sense that mutual interdependencies were present. There was a sense that a relational attitude could be more effective than the previously separatist attitude and culture. it suggested that there might be some understanding of the fluid and power-infused aspects of its relations with the communities and wider society. However, the game of changing culture seems to be a difficult one, with many false starts, numerous regressions and considerable uncertainty.

Philosophy, psychology and the triple bottom line

I do not think that Shell's response pattern to the questions posed by current unsustainable development is unique. There is a sense that this technocratic and separatist orientation towards puzzle-solving is deeply cultural and systemic in nature – marking out our language, ways of talking, our institutions and our ways of organizing since the time of the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe.

In this chapter i have begun to wonder whether a purely technocratic approach to developing responsible business practices is sufficient to address some ‘facts and figures' about sustainability issues of our time (see Boxes 9.1 to 9.4).

Given the ever-increasing rate of the emergence of environmental and social problems, the call to find action-oriented solutions (Brown et al, 1997; 1999) has, indeed, been one of sustainable development's loudest and most resonant calls. in this sense the pragmatic responses of business can be applauded and encouraged.

If you understand sustainable development to merely be a call to the 'technocratic management of planet Earth’ (McAfee, 1999; Purser, 1994; Shiva, 1989), then perhaps these actions are enough. However, sustainable development has sought out and elicited other voices calling for deeper changes in human societies and systems. in this context, i think we need to find spaces for beginning to explore the issue of what we think we know.This is something that comes from our current worldview. These are issues of truths and power that offer to take us beyond simple technocratic fixes towards an appreciation of the deeper systemic and cultural changes that are also required for human development to take on more ecologically sustainable and people-centred dimensions.

Transforming the patterns of ‘puzzle-solving’ (Kuhn, 1996)

As the example of Shell in Nigeria suggests, unsustainable development can severely threaten business. At the same time, extreme global inequalities have been suggested to offer business with new markets and significant product development opportunities (Cairncross, 1991; Prahalad and Hart, 2001; Schmidheiny, 1992). Since the challenge of changing the currently unsustainable patterns of human development has emerged, parts of the business community, such as Shell, have responded in a variety of practical ways. While various academic communities have devoted considerable attention to the meaning and vision underlying the notion of sustainable development (Ayres, 1998; Murphy, 1996; Nieto and Durbin, 1995; Pezzey, 1992), businesses have been confronted with some of the immediate implications of ecologically unsustainable and inequitable forms of development. They have become busy trying to deal with the issues. Businesses have engaged in measures for eco-efficiency (Shrivastava, 1995), collaborated with environmental and development NGOs (Long and Arnold, 1995; Shah, 2001), sought to source, produce and market ethically and environmentally labelled products and services (Elkington and Hailes, 1988; Hartman and Stafford, 1996), produced reports (Wheeler and Elkington, 2001) and employed auditors to measure and legitimize environmental and social performance (Raynard, Sillanpaa and Gonella, 2001). Corporate responsibility departments have been created and various manifestations of professional practice have emerged.

The overriding pattern of these initial moves has been a technocratic orientation that accords with the worldview that has dominated social processes since the Enlightenment. Since that time in 18th-century Europe, a technocratic approach to organizing and understanding has marked out human social processes (Harman, 1996; Tarnas, 1991). This technocratic approach – built upon a patriarchal and mechanical view of the world and a culture of dividing and separating our world in various ways – has been hugely successful in delivering power over the material world. For example, in our language and ways of organizing facts that are separated from and promoted over values, man is separated and elevated from nature, male power is separated from female and the ‘Occident’ is separated from the ‘Orient’. In addition, the 'mechanistic metaphor’ maintains an overriding sense of the need and ability for complete control, certainty and mastery of the material conditions of life for human happiness and development.

However, for me and many others, what is required is other than ‘images of economists and policy experts sitting in a computerized control room, coolly pushing buttons and pulling levers, guiding the planet to something called sustainable growth’ (Orr, 1992, p53). It requires something more than pictures of businessmen assuming new ways of controlling the ecological and social conditions of life. These problems are more than a call for simply solving the next puzzle since they also require culturally oriented transformations in our current ways of thinking, being and knowing. They involve changing how we look at puzzle-solving and changing the puzzles that we are interested in solving. Such attempts to change culture require some form of investigation into the assumptions about what we think we know, assumptions that are automatically and continually affecting all of our actions and interactions.

‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Kurt Lewin)

We are not terribly comfortable dealing with issues of truth and power. I was warned by one of the editors of this book to avoid 'too heavy a philosophical stance’ in this chapter for fear that readers would skip over it; this is a practical book for managers that must offer them ways forward.

I can appreciate the perspective. When I read such figures as I have cited in Boxes 9.1 to 9.4, i often feel a call to arms to get busy and make an immediate impact upon such apparently disturbing realities. However, after some time spent wondering about the meaning of the figures, i find the call to pragmatism is accompanied by another, deeper rumbling noise. This evokes the systemic, mental and cultural patterns of the issues. it asks for time spent with myself and others, enquiring into how we make sense of, and give meaning to, our lives, our spirituality, our humanity and our values, and how we are trying to live with them. This must compete with the sharp cry, above all, to be practical and provide solutions that people can implement. Whatever you do, don't talk about theories and philosophy.

However, we are continually working with philosophy, metaphysics and our theories about the world. it is just that, for the most part, we are not aware of the influence that our assumptions about truth, knowledge and power have upon our actions. Therefore, an attempt to look at the theories we use in our lives and where they come from is a task of some considerable significance.

For instance, I could look back at the figures and wonder about how I had read the information. Perhaps, I could ask myself: ‘How can I be clear that there is no agenda behind this information?’ or ‘Who provided these messages and why?’ I may, with some more focused energy, notice the silent way in which I integrate certain messages from the information within my way of looking at and interpreting the world. I may find that I stick to interpretations that comfort my ideas about the world, rather than turning towards possible interpretations that cause discomfort and challenge. These are marshy lands where the clear call to pragmatic action that I initially heard becomes dulled by a fog of doubt and uncertainty.

It seems to be far easier to revert to yet more monstrous forms of technocratic puzzle-solving – particularly when cultural messages, institutions and patterns of social organization are currently repeating the value of this way of sense-making. Yet, increasingly we find that truth and power are both troubled and troubling issues for us. We need to begin to learn how to play with them in order to transform them, our puzzle-solving activity and ourselves.

Puzzle-solving ‘in here’

The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance from the Orient's part (Said, 1978, p7).

While I was in the Nigeria I had two conversations that particularly affected me. One was with Miriam Isoun, director of the Niger Delta Wetlands Centre (NDWC). During our conversation she criticized the approach taken by Living Earth and the control that oil companies effected in their community development work. She was also the first person who talked to me about the ethnic and racial conflicts in Nigeria, the issues of resource control and local land rights and how this all filtered through to the community development work of Living Earth, Shell and the relationship between the two organizations.

During our conversation she showed me a cartoon (see Figure 9.1). As she presented it to me I could see how, in some ways, I was another man placed in that line-up of external ‘experts’, expecting/hoping/wanting to be of assistance to someone further down the line. I became clear that I was constructing a story of the situation in the Delta based upon my particular gender, position, role, needs and history. I had read the books and had adopted a language of participation, ownership and collaborative engagement. Despite this, I was largely working only from the technocratic puzzle-solving frame of mind where it was possible to ‘get things right’.

When I was visiting the communities in the Delta I spent some time at Opume village. This village is within 3 kilometres of Shell's and Nigeria's first discovery of commercial quantities of oil. It also sits within some of the most stunning ecology that I have experienced. At Opume I talked to the village chiefs for 40 minutes or so. Towards the end of the conversation one of the younger members of the group, Authority, asked me what I thought of Nigeria. I responded that I thought Lagos was a noisy, polluted and overcrowded city, but that the Delta was truly remarkable, peaceful and beautiful. When I told him this, he said that I had offended them. Stunned, I asked him ‘why’. He said that

Source: adapted from Spore, 1995

Figure 9.1 In the name of the Niger Delta

I had chosen to come into the Delta; but equally and immediately I could choose to leave and return to all the conveniences of my lifestyle in England. They did not have this choice and, therefore, what I had seen as the beauty of the environment failed to take into account the conditions of underdevelopment and lack of running water, proper sanitation and electricity that people were living under.

I have since spent much time wondering about the message in Figure 9.1 and the conversations that I was able to have with Miriam and Authority. I began to appreciate that, in part, I was present in the Delta because of my role in a research community and academia. I noticed that my PhD and my professional development as a researcher had some influence upon my research work. In part, I needed to exert some form of control in the situation. I needed a good enough story to tell that could increase my chances of the research being legitimated by the professional academic community. And this professional community formed by the dominant culture of our time created a separatist and control-oriented environment for my engagement. For example, while the academic community could assess and reward my technical growth as a professional researcher, it had to separate this from any attempt to understand my personal psychological growth as a spiritual being, the outcomes for communities in the Niger Delta or the ecological and cultural impact of my presence there. It had to ignore these things, not because academia deems them unimportant, but because it does not know how to make sense of their combined and changing complexity.

Because there is no business-as-usual case

Walk forward questioning3

The diagrams and conversations continue to evoke colourful questions in my attitude towards change and the role of business in sustainable development. For example, is everyone in that ‘line’ always only there for his or her own sake? Are some of the well-paid development experts brought in by the oil companies looking to benefit the proverbial (and real) woman worker at the end of the line? If outside agents did not come in, how would change be effected?

And even my telling of these stories about my experiences can be further interrogated – after all, neither Authority nor Miriam were invited to write a chapter for this book. My voice is here for many reasons, at least part of which comes from my own position of power and a desire/need to keep myself professionally employed. I find it very easy to turn away from this and focus upon being busier in my job, writing more articles and avoiding the need to challenge the ways in which I make sense of my world.

I cannot ignore the call to contribute to changes in the way that we are acting today. However, I remain aware that there is a limit to how far our current puzzle-solving activity can take us. Another game must be played that seeks transformation of what we perceive as truthful, valuable and powerful. This game seeks to transform the puzzles themselves and how we look at puzzle-solving activity.

So, for me, reflective questioning and action go on. I try to increase my attention to the ways that I frame, understand and talk about people, ecology and the world. I move towards paying more attention to how I speak to people – where I am looking for individual control – to appreciating the people and things I don't respond to. This is not paid work for me; it is spiritual play. There is no pragmatic, business-as-usual case. The play cannot be rewarded or measured through professional development, performance assessment or academic careering. The world (the one we are trying to change) does not yet have the ability to understand it, value it and sell it, so we must go on ahead of the world.


1BBC Radio 4 (2002) ‘Crossing Continents’, July 2002

2This Day (2003) ‘Warri: NNPC Oil Chiefs Hold Emergency Meeting’, This Day, Lagos, 25 March 2003

3From Zapatista's movement against the oppression of neo-liberalism in the Chiapas region of Mexico.