University to introduce degree in Social Impact Assessments

Can these studies become another box to tick without meaningful consequences for communities elbowed out by major projects? JAMES DEBONO speaks to course coordinator Michael Briguglio

Michael Briguglio
Michael Briguglio

The University of Malta is introducing a postgraduate course to equip individuals with the skills to conduct and interpret social impact assessments (SIAs).

So far these assessments primarily focus on evaluating the repercussions of major projects on local communities within the context of urban planning. However, SIAs have broader applications, extending to the evaluation of major changes in policy. The Labour Party had committed itself to a more widespread use of SIAs before it was elected to power in 2013.

By international standards, SIAs delve into both intended and unintended social consequences, encompassing positive and negative outcomes. They investigate the societal changes resulting from policies, plans, and projects, often providing recommendations for their management and mitigation.

Nevertheless, judging by the little weight presently given to SIAs when mega projects are approved the question arises: do SIAs risk becoming a mere formality; an obligatory checkbox for developers with limited follow-up after project approvals?

Michael Briguglio, a prominent sociologist coordinating this new University of Malta programme and himself a long-standing advocate for a more structured SIA system in the planning process, acknowledges the risk.

He emphasizes that the methodology of SIAs is designed to prevent this by making them ongoing practices, conducted before, during, and after policy development, rather than one-off exercises. SIAs also typically include action plans to address the concerns raised by affected residents.

Furthermore, SIAs can extend their utility to various fields beyond urban planning, such as environment, economy, tourism, health, culture, maritime, and social policy. They enable critical analysis, assessing the social implications of projects and policy initiatives, ultimately contributing to “sustainable and equitable outcomes”, Briguglio says.

As  modern societies confront a multitude of social, environmental, and technological changes often in a short span of time, the demand for social impact assessments is expected to surge, particularly in addressing the risk of marginalization among ‘left behind’ communities.

Briguglio anticipates a growing demand for SIA professionals both locally and internationally, driven by development proposals requiring these assessments. He also foresees an expansion of policy fields that will necessitate SIAs in the near future.

The Master of Arts in Social Impact Assessment programme caters to individuals “passionate” about comprehending and evaluating the social consequences of various projects, policies, and initiatives, Briguglio argues.

Graduates will be well-prepared for roles in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms, and research institutions.

The programme is scheduled to commence in February 2024, with applications opening in the coming weeks.