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Human Rights

‘The Social License – How to Keep your Organization Legitimate’ – book review by Paul Hohnen

Useful reading 

Paul Hohnen offers a few thoughts on John Morrison’s new book below.

Yes I have plugged the book on the blog before, but it’s an excellent addition to anyone’s library, so I don’t mind doing it again.

Looking for a good ‘bluffer’s guide’ to human rights written by a recognized expert?  This book is not it.

It contains few or none of the slick consultant Venn diagrams, tables and check-lists one often finds in the ‘how to’ business management literature.

Nor is it a book written for an academic audience, rich in theory and new perspectives, and festooned with footnotes.  Bluffers and academics alike, however, will find much to learn.

Anyone who has had the privilege of hearing John Morrison speak, or read his other writings, will know broadly what to expect.

This book is a deeply thoughtful and informative analysis of evolving social, business and regulatory expectations and trends, drawing on the author’s score of years experience at the front line of the business and human rights movement.

The ‘Social License’ is primarily addressed to a policy and practitioner audience in the business, governmental and civil society (including academic) sectors interested in gaining a deeper insight into one of the great challenges of our time: how best to understand and respond to the growing – and even existential  – challenges posed by our current development model.

Drawing on a broad range of well-documented human rights cases, including from the extractives and electronics sectors, John describes and methodically unpacks the concept of the corporate ‘license to operate’.

Noting that societal consent – at a regulatory, political and social level – is needed for most development projects to be successful in the long term, John defines the social licence as ‘the sum of expectations between an organisation and relevant social groups in relation to a specific activity or set of activities.’

Readers hoping to find a comprehensive ‘plug and play’ humans rights framework will be disappointed.

As John points out, while instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (a.k.a. the ‘Ruggie Principles’) and the OECD MNE Guidelines are valuable and instructive, the realities on the ground are more complex and ever shifting. Like everything else in the sustainability field, a one-time ‘tick-box’ or compliance approach only takes you so far.

The real lesson is that corporate and other actors derive most value from listening carefully to the views of all stakeholders and, using relevant laws and standards, craft a balanced decision.  Thereafter, they need to monitor the situation closely and fine-tune as needed.

As practitioners know, this is a time and resource consuming – and frequently frustrating – task.  As John notes, there are always stakeholders who will disagree, even after being consulted extensively.  There are no easy answers.

He argues convincingly, however, that recognition of the need to acquire and maintain the ‘licence to operate’ and to engage in quality consultation processes is now (and has always been) an essential element of good governance. Failure to integrate such considerations in due diligence measures often ends in tears and, moreover, unexpected costs.

The emphasis on structured and sustained stakeholder consultations and dialogue is, of course, also to be found in the ‘materiality’ approach used by an increasing number of global companies.

Indeed, such is the maturity of this approach, once confined to financial accounting, that ‘materiality matrixes’ mapping stakeholder views of a company’s main sustainability issues, and the company’s own view, are happily becoming common place in sustainability reports.

My main reservation about the book was a nagging sense that it does not always strike the right balance between advocacy (of what should be, and why) and implementation (how to achieve it, within current development model and within the limits of governmental decision-making).

In this context, I would like to have read more about how to address the fact that all too many organizations, both public and private sector, continue to get away with flagrant human rights abuses, with little or no NGO or media coverage or regulator intervention.

If history has taught us anything, it is that the dark default mode of mankind is to pay as little as possible for its labour, energy and raw materials.  And that is precisely why it is so important to constantly promote and defend human rights.

‘The Social Licence’ is an important and welcome new contribution to the body of literature exploring why and how humankind can better live up to the high standards it has set itself, knowing that failure to do so will surely diminish our collective future.

More on the book, here.

John Morrison will be speaking and facilitating debate and discussion at Innovation Forum’s conference “Business and Human Rights – How to get beyond policy, manage risk and build relationships” on November 10th in London. Blog readers get a discount to attend, details on the event are here. Contact Charlenne Ordonnez if you’d like to come along. The conference is organised in association with the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

John will be alongside speakers and facilitators from BP, PUMA, Amnesty International, Oxfam, RBS, De Beers, Anglo American, New Look, ABB, Bechtel, Ericsson, Richard Howitt MEP and Daniel Franklin, executive editor of the Economist, amongst others.

This upcoming workshop ten days before may also be of interest:

How to effectively engage stakeholders in frontier markets
An exclusive two-day executive training workshop, certified by the CSR Training Institute
30-31 October, 2014, London

Experts taking part in this workshop have experience at working with companies such as Arcelor Mittal, BP, Anglo American, Rexam, Golden Star, BHP Billiton, Shell, Trafigura, Vedanta Resources and many others. Five places remain for executives.