Human rights and trade | Opinion

The Social License – thoughtful and informative analysis

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Caution: no Venn diagrams

Paul Hohnen reviews John Morrison’s new book The Social License – how to keep your organisation legitimate

Looking for a good “bluffer’s guide” to human rights written by a recognised 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 writing, 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 problems 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”. 

Consent required


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 Morrison points out, while instruments such as the UN guiding principles on business and human rights (aka 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 Morrison 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.

Structured consultation


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 organisations, 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 information about The Social License available here

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